[5 February 2009]
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.
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.
Photos: Mehan Jayasuriya
Outside of the music, Montréal is a city that begs to be explored, and on Saturday afternoon I found myself atop of Mount Royal alongside a handful of delegates as part of a city tour organized by the festival. The two hour trip took us to the hip Mile End neighborhood and past several places and restaurants where Leonard Cohen apparently hung out, including a park in the Portuguese part of town where he wrote a lot of his lyrics. Narrated by M for Montréal’s booking agent, Mikey Bernard—who proved to be sarcastic and sardonic, yet highly knowledgeable, guide—the tour took in two stops. The second was to frequent some of the city’s hippest coffee shops, but the first involved a brief walk to the top of Mount Royal, which, despite a slight incline, is more of a hill. (The city’s ordinance that no building be taller than it makes Mount Royal seem slightly bigger than it actually is.) After wandering the grounds—designed by famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead (he helped carve out Central Park)—we found ourselves with a panoramic view of the city stretching out below us. Looking at it from above, Montréal doesn’t seem that different from many American cities, but its attitude is. Unlike America and the capitalistic, winner takes all, “someone must rise to the top” philosophy, Montréal, possibly because of it European feel and mindset, seems just as interested in content as conclusion.
“How do I get my song licensed?”
It’s perhaps slightly ironic then, given the prior point, that this is the first question asked at M for Montréal. But with CD sales still slowing, it is a pertinent query, and one that is answered at the first of the festival’s two panels. I’ve never written a song, nor managed a band that has done so, so this panel perhaps isn’t catering to me. Still, I stick around, load up on free cookies and coffee, and sit back. The advice given by the panelists, which includes music supervisors for movies, advertisements, and video games, ranges from the rote and rudimentary (write good songs, clearly label your CDs) to the well rounded (register your songs at Gracenote, sending songs via large files is bad). At first this panel left a foul taste in my mouth, especially the notion that bands today might negate their artistic integrity and write songs specifically for advertising purposes. But really, is this sort of sale any different from Robert Johnson offering up his soul to the devil for his own musical, and in essence, monetary, gain? Heck, even the Rolling Stones sold their soul for some snap, crackle, and pop back in the ‘60s.
The second panel concerned bands looking to tour France and how that country’s governmental cuts will affect foreign groups seeking to play shows there. For me, a more serious problem immediately arises—it’s all in French. I skip out and explore the city instead.
“I regret nothing…”
It’s scrawled in chalk on a wall outside the Université du Québec à Montréal’s Pavillon de Musique, a newish building attached to an old one like an artificial limb; not completely out of place but noticeable enough for it to be deemed slightly jarring. It’s a rock and roll thing: regrets, and the lack of them. “Je ne regrette rien,” sang the little sparrow, Edith Piaf, the graffiti echoing her sentiments. “I don’t regret a thing,” sings former Montréal resident King Khan on the closing track of his recent album. Sure, Frank Sinatra might have had a few, but at least he still did it his way. Me? Not even the poutine (a traditional Montréal dish consisting of fries and meat gravy topped off with cheese curds) that I forced into my vegetarian belly, could bring me to my knees. Neither could the cold, or the excessive amounts of local beer, or the late nights. Montréal’s that kind of town. It’s the kind of place where getting down on your knees has several connotations. Pilgrims visiting the city’s Basilique Notre-Dame and its giant dome climb the 99 cold, concrete steps to its entrance on their bony patellas. Patrons visiting the city’s seedier side, well, perhaps we shouldn’t go there.
Two blocks away from the Pavillon de Musique, a little further down rue Saint-Denis, at the corner of Rene-Levesque, stands a line of 40 young girls, shaking in their winter clothing and amateurish make-up. In front of them is The Medley, a cavernous looking venue that, according to the lettering on the awning, is playing host to emo-popsters The Academy Is…. It’s 4pm, bitterly cold, and the doors don’t open for another few hours. Regrets? I don’t think so. Religious devotion? Definitely.
This, in a convoluted way, brings me back to Dan Graham’s video installation. Rock and roll, in that respect, is religion—a daily ritual; undiluted devotion. It doesn’t work the other way round—I’ve heard contemporary Christian music and it may contain guitars, but it’s not rock and roll. And the reason is that Christians believe in regret and repentance and redemption. Rock and roll, or any music that claims to move us in ways that other artistic forms can’t, in some fashion, is always morally devoid—even if it’s just in the eyes of our elders. (Let’s not forget that jazz was once viewed with suspicion but is now seen as a sophisticated musical genre with Montréal’s famous Jazz Fest bringing over two million visitors to the city on an annual basis.) This doesn’t mean that artists should be morally devoid, but it means they should go out on a limb and not only push the envelope, but shove and stuff it, light it on fire and put it out with their own piss. Montréal seems to foster this message through its music: A slightly contradictory combination of “no regret” coupled with a fierce sense of religious-like musical devotion. Even if the genre they are dabbling in isn’t fashionable or hip, each band I see plays with a genuine sense of belief in what they are doing.
In keeping with the brutalist architecture that dots the Montréal skyline and the freezing weather (that I dubbed “nature’s cocaine” due to its invigorating properties), the best bands at M for Montréal are either the most abrasive or the starkest. CLAASS definitely fell into the former category. They were also one of the festival’s most anticipated acts as they featured two members (Alex Ortiz and Vincent Lesveque) of We Are Wolves, last year’s M for Montréal breakout band. Rounding out the trio onstage was local DJ, Jordan Dare who brought a techo edge of Ortiz and Levesque’s dance-punk panache. At first the group sounded like a cacophonic variation of Liverpool’s Clinic: Dark, gloomy synths, and syncopated nonsensical lyrics collapsed into each other as Korgs clashed with live bass and a Mac sat ominously in a corner, churning out beats. But as their set progressed, they morphed into a more dance-flavored sound that was harsher in its approach, utilizing repetitive, rumbling disco-infused bass regurgitations and vocodered vocals. It was harsh and slightly inhuman, yet lots of people, including myself, were moved to, well, move.
At the other end of the musical spectrum, Couer de Pirate, a petite, platinum blonde, sat alone at a baby grand piano, pounding out beautifully dreamy songs as she opened proceedings at the festival’s closing showcase at Metropolis. Just 18-years-old, Béatrice Martin, who plays as Couer de Pirate, is a precocious talent capable of pulling the most cynical of listener into her slight and subtle, yet satisfying songs. As Martin’s fingers danced along the keys, her vocals intertwined seamlessly with the notes, and even though I couldn’t understand a word she sang, the inflection and rising cadence sounded overtly optimistic. Her performance was a musical embrace and I stretched out my arms and squeezed.
Similarly stark and sweet was Emilie Clepper, a singer songwriter who split her time growing up between Texas and Quebec. With just a full bodied Les Paul for company, and the odd flourish of percussion from a friend, Clepper worked her way through a set of fingerpicking folk, country twang, and blues-y desert shuffles that sounded like Joanna Newson if she’d grown up in Nashville. Playing a late afternoon showcase at St. Sulpice as part of the M for Martini schmoozing session, Clepper’s songs made me want to put the vodka down and break out the bourbon.
While Couer de Pirate and Emilie Clepper were amongst my favorite acts musically, performance wise they were slightly sedate—more akin with rainy afternoons than rock and roll. Luckily, Red Mass and Duchess Says were on hand to rectify the staid onstage situation.
Closing out the festival’s first night, Duchess Says, melded dark and heavy histrionic punk with broken beer bottles, keytars, and karate chops. Backed by keys, bass, and drums, the group’s singer, Annie-Claude, careened around the stage and into the audience, bouncing off everything in her path like a punked-up pinball machine. Sounding like an industrial X-Ray Spex, or a guitar-less version of Baltimore-based Ponytail, Claude, and her non-descript backing band, were confrontational yet uncontrived. But while it was frenzied and fun to watch, over the course of a 45-minute set it soon became slightly repetitive. The show culminated with Claude crowdsurfing before a scrum of audience members were invited onstage for a final musical onslaught. And while the keys did add a slight disco element, overall it was the visual aspect that was more appealing than the musical one.
Going back to the Gories, Montréal has a long lineage of garage bands and Red Mass, can now be added to that list. Taking the stage at the very un-rock and roll hour of 4pm on Saturday afternoon, Red Mass was perhaps ten strong (it was difficult for me to see in the small, packed side room at Les Foufounes Électriques). A crazy, colorful gang, resplendent in red capes and hats, ties, and socks, they were too big for the stage, and their sound, a raucous mess of garage rock rumblings, was too much for the sound guy. But even though I couldn’t discern the horns or keys, what I could hear was catastrophic and out of control yet somehow coherent and melodic. Framing the band—standing on speaker stacks at either side of the stage—were a nonchalant guitarist and a guy in his underwear playing percussion. It was far and away the most interesting act to grace any stage over the course of the festival, and by the time they finished with a choral chant that stated “party party party, die die die,” we were all ready to do the former and not worry about the latter.
Playing a free after-party on Friday night, Misteur Valaire were neither stark nor abrasive, but like the city of Montréal they were an amalgamation of eclectic influences. With more equipment on stage than they could possibly play, this five-piece group, who appeared in matching fur-lined multi-colored vests, was akin to a boy band version of Funkadelic. (They even broke out some synchronized dance moves late in their set.) Mixing samples and turntables with real instruments—percussion, horns, bass—Misteur Valaire switched instruments and sounds with ease, slipping in and out of hip-hop, electronica, dance, rock, and jazz. For the most part it was a purely instrumental set, and the peaks and valleys of their varied sound warmed up the crowd, which was just as well because many had waited out in the cold until after midnight to see them. Sure, it was gimmicky—they wore flashing sunglasses for a portion of their set—but it was also fun and funky, and if you have the stage-side bouncers nodding along, you know you must be doing something right. Right?
It’s a question posed to me by two girls working for a radio station called CHOQ. With no time to think and a microphone stuck under my nose I utter something asinine along the lines of: “Sure, if you have good songs with good melodies and good hooks, then language shouldn’t matter.” Yet we all know—according to American album sales at least—that language does matter. On Saturday evening, though, sandwiched between the funny-for-a-minute comedian Jon Lajoie, and the pulsating dance-punk of We Are Wolves, Karkwa, proved that perhaps language, when used as an instrument instead of a story-telling device, really doesn’t matter.
Straddling the middle ground between Sigur Ros and Radiohead, Karkwa proved that words could still affect meaning even if you don’t understand what’s being said. In essence, Radiohead are, for all intents and purposes, a foreign language band. Thom Yorke’s enunciation often takes literal meaning out of what he is singing, but in return it pours additional meaning onto the songs through sheer emotion. Karkwa never come close to topping Radiohead or Sigur Ros, but if one band were to break through the language barrier, and provide Canada’s French-speaking provinces with an internationally recognized act, it might just be this four-piece.
With their mix of traditional Francophone pop, krautrock rhythms, and Stereolab-style synth drones, Pas Chic Chic provided an intelligent approach to mood music that could also feasibly cross over into non-French speaking territories. Basked in a red glow and fronted by former Godspeed You! Black Emperor member Roger Tellier-Craig, the five-piece droned and dallied through a dark set of early ‘80s synth sounds that called to mind Serge Gainsbourg fronting Cabaret Voltaire. Accented by female backing vocals, the odd new romantic riff, and some chugging Velvet Underground rhythms, it was easy to get lost in their swirling mass of sound and forget that they were singing in French altogether.
Many of the other French-speaking acts didn’t fare so well. The festival kicked-off, or should I say faced-off, with Quebec’s Les Dales Hawerchuk, a four-piece band named after a famous hockey player I’ve never heard of. Their brand of rudimentary rock, propelled along by some strong bass playing and chugging power chords, was passionate but pedantic. Sitting somewhere between an angst-less Rage Against the Machine, and the Offspring, the only word of their set that I understood appeared during the last song, with a chorus that stated: “L’Attention.” Unfortunately, they aren’t able to hold mine.
Despite the MC asking that we “please cheer up for Chinatown” we aren’t sad until they actually started playing. Unlike the movie of the same name, there was nothing mysterious about Chinatown, the band. Their brand of rock and pop lacked dynamics and they felt flat. I don’t think it helped that they were the first band of the second night’s showcase, but even the $15 they offered fans to move up front didn’t elicit many takers. They have big anthemic keys and, on occasion, a Beatles-esque bounce, but there was no delineation in their sound. They did, however, put on a good show. That is, of course, if your idea of a good show is the use of guitars as extensions of hidden appendages.
By far the strangest act I see also happens to be one of Quebec’s biggest stars. Pierre Lapointe, a 27-year-old crooner, headlined the closing night at Metropolis with a mix of chanson-style singer-songwriter solemnity and cabaret-infused rock. When sat at his piano, he was reminiscent of Rufus Wainright and perhaps a smidgen of Serge Gainsbourg. But when he stepped away from his stool and danced around the stage with theatrical, over the top gestures, it was all a little, well, laughable. The crowd certainly seemed to be into it, and apparently his esoteric lyrics have a lot to do with this, but for those not in the know, Lapointe’s set ended the festival on a very bemused note.
Now, I don’t want to draw a xenophobic line in the sand and state that the French-speaking acts were “worse” than the English-speaking acts, because that wasn’t the case. Some of my favorite performers—Couer de Pirate, Karkwa, and Pas Chic Chic—all utilized the French language. Indeed, the worst acts of the festival, to my ears anyway, were the Anglophones.
Colin Munroe opened up Les Foufounes Électrique’s Saturday afternoon showcase and while his simultaneous singing/standing/drumming approach to playing was impressive, his songs were not. Famous for his cover/interpretation/remix of Kanye West’s “I Want Those Flashing Lights”, Munroe—backed only by an additional guitarist—multi-tasked his way through a set of perfunctory pop that I imagine would be popular with high school girls and trips to the mall. Unfortunately, I am not a high school girl and I hate the mall.
Utilizing four-piece harmonies and falsetto-tinged vocals, Sweet Thing announced their Thursday night appearance in style, propositioning themselves as a Canadian Fleet Foxes. Unfortunately, the first Toronto-based band of the festival to take the stage immediately collapsed into a mix of driving drums and funky guitar that sounded like a tumultuous Killers playing ‘70s AM rock. Despite a skyscraping quality that stretched their songs to their musical limits—especially singer Owen Carrier’s vocal gymnastics—their stylized set ultimately came up short.
To be honest, I didn’t hear much of Lioness. Sure, I was there, but the trio’s take on the Gossip’s stark, soul-inflected sound left me concentrating more on the conversations that were happing around me than the actual music. Every time I did return my attention to the stage, each song sounded far too similar for the band to make an impact despite singer Vanessa Fischer’s strong stage presence and vocal style.
As a fan of the Oscar winning soundtrack to the zany animated French-language film, The Triplets of Belleville, I was expecting a lot from Beast. The band’s singer, Beatrice Bonifassi, provided vocals for the soundtrack and—despite the band’s name, which conjured up images of Scandinavian heavy metal—I was expecting something similarly off the wall. Unfortunately the four-piece band, Bonifassi backed by drummer/producer Jean-Phi Goncalves, plus bass and guitar, played an uncomplimentary mix of Bristol trip-hop (Portishead / Tricky) and Rage Against the Machine-style riffing. It’s clear that Bonifassi has a great vocal range, and on record Beast is less blustery and better, but live they lost my interest pretty quickly.
Unlike Beast, I wasn’t expecting anything from David Martell, who took to the stage shoe-less and slippered with an acoustic guitar in hand at the M for Martini afternoon networking event. Behind him stood an all female backing band consisting of accordion, cello, and a lone backing singer. I feared the worst and while it wasn’t quite my thing – an overwrought singer-songwriter with orchestral touches—my lack of expectations worked in Martell’s favor as I found his acoustic strumming a fine companion for the first drink of the day, if not the second.
One English language band that could eventually become export-worthy, though, is the Arkells, whose brand of rudimentary bar rock grew on me with every song. The young looking five-piece produced a solid set of eager country rock songs, with the emphasis almost exclusively placed on the rock side of this musical coin. Taking their cues from the likes of Bruce Springsteen and his ilk, the Arkells played it straight, and would be just as happy, it seems, playing to a bunch of Hells Angels as they would playing to a bunch of hipsters.
Dance music, especially offshoot genres such as dance-punk, is obviously alive and well in Montréal. With We are Wolves wowing fans at M for Metropolis on Saturday night and the brutalist bombast of CLAASS bringing Day Two to a close, several of the bands seemingly build their songs from the beats up. Woodhands worked Friday night’s crowd into a frenzy, with the duo, according to my scribbled notes, mixing juvenile Beastie Boys with Duran Duran and the Factory Records back catalogue. Listening back to their songs outside of the live environment, I don’t know how true that actually is, but at the time, with the duo stating, “It’s so simple but we fucking love this beat,” before breaking to a simple, yet killer beat, it was more than enough to put a smile on my face and a skip in my step.
While their beats were good, and their whirling synth-tainted sound was sufficiently engrossing, vocally Winter Gloves were slightly annoying. I liked their songs and the slightly twee melodies, but singer Charles F’s vocals grated a little, giving the group a geeky, glitchy pop vibe that sounded like a whinier Postal Service sped up. They fared a lot better when Charles exchanged his synth for a guitar, but that was perhaps due the heavier sound slightly suffocating his vocals.
It wasn’t just the dance-based acts that utilized beats, though, as M for Montréal’s rap and hip-hop contingent also used heavy bouts of rhythm. The most interesting percussive vision came via The National Parcs, who utilized organic field-recorded instrumentation—snapping twigs, sawing trees, and clacking wood—as a rhythmic base. In these environmentally conscious times, this three-piece group, befitting their name, propositioned themselves as the greenest cats in town. With help from an accompanying video screen that highlighted the origin of their rhythmic sounds, the band exchanged hip-hop’s usual trappings, bling and excess, for a heady dose of environmentalism. At one point, according to the video footage at least, they used an overturned canoe for a hollow bass drum sound. It was an interesting concept that didn’t quite translate in its musical execution. If you lost the visual aspect, you would be left with a better than average hip-hop band. And while they did mix things up, throwing in some lazy, lounge inflections and soulful tropical sweeps, their set left me wishing they’d put as much effort into the songwriting as the inventive rhythms that propelled them along.
Saturday afternoon’s showcase saw two hip-hop bands taking the stage at Les Foufounes Électriques—one with a live drummer, the other utilizing samples and electronics for their rhythmic base. Up first was Radio Radio, who walked out to the strains of Donna Summer’s “On the Radio”. Summer’s version soon dissolved into a mass of static and beats, but the song’s undercurrent kept returning as the band’s two main MCs rapped atop of it in a breathless Beastie Boy’s fashion. Utilizing turntables and laptops, the four-piece group was juvenile and jubilant in equal measure and while their songs were littered with some English lyrics, for the most part they sung in an Acadian dialect that even my French-speaking friends found hard to follow.
Whereas Radio Radio criss-crossed their rhymes like an intricate pretzel, passing off lines like a seamless, musical relay, Gatineau utilized the traditional frontman/hypeman hip-hop set up as well as a more traditional band approach. Backed by a gorilla-mask wearing drummer, a bass player, and additional vocals fed through an old phone, Gatineau’s front man, Seba, stomped about the stage, pulling up his shirt, and pulling down his jeans. The band had a certain charm (especially thanks to the occasional use of an autoharp), an off-kilter ear for melody, and they get bonus points for being the only band I’ve ever seen to break a bass string.
It was moments like this—a slightly juvenile crew of hip-hop heads breaking out a traditionally classical instrument (the autoharp)—that summed up the whole experience. As I said at the beginning of this piece, there were more groups playing typically unfashionable genres of music with unabashed glee than there were Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade wannabes. Perhaps it was a purposeful and conscious choice on the part of the organizers. Perhaps that musical fad, for Montréal at least, has passed. Or perhaps there just aren’t any up and coming indie rock bands at the moment. Whatever the case may be, it gave the impression that, unlike Seattle in the early ‘90s and New York earlier this decade, Montréal’s music scene isn’t founded on a singular sound or language. Instead, as I said earlier, it seems to be founded on a combination of “no regret” coupled with a fierce sense of religious-like musical devotion, culminating in an eclectic musical mix.
Back at the Museum of Contemporary Art, before I watched Dan Graham’s video installation, before I checked out Robert Longo’s lifelike chalk drawings and Peter Saville’s intricately designed New Order album covers, before I walked out and chanced upon some Edith Piaf-quoting graffiti and saw a gaggle of young girls shivering in the cold as they waited to catch a glimpse of their favorite band, before I even see any music or eat any poutine, I walk into a small alcove dedicated to Paul-Emile Borduas and his call for “resplendent anarchy.” It’s the 60th anniversary of the movement, a movement that, from what I have read, changed Montréal’s cultural standing and the city’s approach to the arts. And while Montréal’s inhabitants still cling to Leonard Cohen and the places he eats like ivy clings to old buildings, events like M for Montréal provide ample proof that the City of Saints will continue to preach its musical gospel for many years to come. Whether these bands will be export worthy remains to be seen, but even if they don’t cross-over internationally, or locally for that matter, I am pretty sure that they won’t regret a thing.