POP Montréal: Ten Years on the Cutting Edge (Part 1)

This past fall, POP Montréal, a five day festival spanning music, art, and film celebrated its 10th anniversary in grand style, highlighted by a free public concert by local heroes Arcade Fire. Through innovative programming and an intimate setting that is much a showcase for its host city as its performers, POP Montréal has garnered a reputation as one of the premier cutting edge events in North America. The festival’s origins are the product of a random encounter between co-founders Dan Seligman, a college graduate who had managed Canadian indie-rock heroes Stars, and industry veteran Peter Rowan. Over the course of a train ride, Seligman and Rowan developed a rapport over a shared vision of an indie music festival in Montréal, similar to the Halifax Pop Explosion, which Rowan had helped found in Halifax, Nova Scotia in 1993.

In 2001, POP Montréal hit the ground running, booking 80 bands in its first year, by starting a tradition of pairing emerging bands, like Blonde Redhead and Interpol, with Canadian artists such as Broken Social Scene, Stars, or Martha Wainwright. Over the years, POP has attracted headliners as varied as Beck, Patti Smith, Burt Bacharach and the National, and a parade of Canadians before they broke big elsewhere: Arcade Fire, Wolf Parade, Patrick Watson, Metric, Chromeo and Stars. Even as it has expanded to 400 artists over five days and across 50 venues, POP has adhered to a DIY ethic, bordering on avant-garde in its programming choices, a function of the virtually homespun nature of programming, handled by Dan and his small staff.

The event attracts both a wide range of emerging artists, eager to leave their creative mark on an equally creative, open-minded city, as well as veteran acts who, inspired by the setting, may try something a bit different. Arcade Fire appear on the second night on a giant makeshift stage constructed at the Place des Festivals of Quartier des Spectacles, the city center that serves as the hub for the parade of public outdoor events that fill Montréal’s warm weather months.

Arcade Fire used the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the festival to show their appreciation to the city and their hometown festival. The inspired collaboration by festival programmers and the city’s most famous native sons, kept under wraps for months, drew an estimated 101,000, aware of the show’s historic significance.

The anniversary also drew countless other Canadian artists who have made it big. In the first of a two-part series, we will examine what makes POP Montréal unique, before taking a more focused look at the festival’s relationship to the local music scene.


A ubiquitous symbol on POP Montréal banners and swag is that of a chirping pigeon, an image appropriate for the manner in which the festival embraces a spirit of discovery. A lengthy list of buzz-worthy artists packed into a program guide chock full of encyclopedic references, combined with the festival’s manageable scale, is like being let in on a big secret, the little bird leading festival-goers towards the next big thing or filling in gaps of pop culture literacy through a seminal lesson in music history.

At a time when major outdoor festivals have spread from an institution fairly unique to Europe to a ubiquitous part of the North American concert-going experience, POP has steadfastly avoided going the route of large outdoor venues or domineering corporate sponsorships. Festival events take place over a relatively compact footprint. With the exception of a handful of shows at mid-sized theatres, most showcases take place in smaller venues that create an intimacy between artist and fans that mirrors a defining trait of Montréal, a performing arts culture where even artists who have achieved global success remain accessible. Most artists perform only once, as opposed to the gauntlet of mini-showcases common to music industry cattle calls such as CMJ or South by Southwest, making each POP performance special.

POP affords festival-goers lessons in music appreciation, highlighting artists who have had an outsize impact, but remain below the commercial radar. In true DIY spirit, most of the event’s symposium, film and art installations take place in the compact setting of Pop Quarters, a building that formerly housed the Ecole des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, not in a convention center, auditorium, or hotel ballroom. The schoolhouse setting used for the symposium is perfectly suited to advancing one of POP’s goals, encouraging participants to uncover the past, and explore relationships across different disciplines. The festival intimacy became more apparent by the third day, as one found oneself continuing to rub elbows with performers and panelists, at exhibits, showcases, and the countless BBQs and social hours organized by the POP Montréal staff.

Day Party BBQ at the Notman House, Photo by Inman Salcedo

By operating on a smaller footprint than larger industry conferences such as SxSW, POP bridges the connections between the different disciplines much more seamlessly. Before seeing British punk pioneers Raincoats perform on stage, one can view their visual and multimedia work and then hear the ladies talk about their creative process.

Raincoats Unplugged, Photo by Francesca Tallone

The photographic installation provides a holistic sense of their artistic vision, with the black and white photography offering a revealing look at the post-punk period. Among the items displayed is a testimonial from fanboy Kurt Cobain, including album cover art designed by Cobain. By the time they play their set on closing night, one has an idea of their creative journey.

The films largely focused on the overlap between music and film, included works about the Vancouver punk scene, Creation Records, Phil Ochs, the Replacements, Dr. Feelgood, the James Vance lawsuit against Judas Priest, and a compilation of Saturday morning rock cartoons. The art installations blended a mix of visual art and multimedia that explore the intersection of art, technology and culture, including a taxidermy installation by local stage designers Alex Hercule and Caroline Bergoin, a humorous but unsettling film depicting Dr. Phil audience members in Stepford Wife docility, and an over-capacity crowd on hand to meet avant garde filmmaker Marcel Dzama whose films,Death Disco Dance and A Game of Chess are stark symbolic works that evoke Bergman, with cutting edge allegories on war, sacrifice, and ritual. A live art project afforded interaction with a revolving set of artists as they worked in real time, hopping from one canvas to the next, layering their work on top of each other.The festival also included an arts and crafts fair (Puces Pop) and a fashion show that pitted six aspiring local designers in a juried competition, drawing both hipsters and fashion intelligentsia (including to my surprise, my seatmate from my New York flight).

Hipster on the Catwalk by LP Maurice

Music Intelligentsia and Their Admirers Meet Up at the Notman House, Photo By Inman Salcedo

One of POP’s highlights were a series of interviews with an eclectic range of musical pioneers that were part storyteller-confessional, part musical demonstration. Guitarist Gary Lucas, a protégé of the late Captain Beefheart, sprinkled anecdotes of the band’s creative process into a master class on guitar technique before a room of attentive musicians. Latin soul legend Joe Bataan recalled his turning point from a potential life of trouble in East Harlem: encountering a former street rival now in band, who, by barring Bataan from watching a rehearsal, provided Bataan with the motivation to start his own band. Outsider artist R. Stevie Moore, author of hundreds of self-released cassette and video projects, held court on his adventures as one of the first DIY artists, while a loop of his work ran silently behind him as an eerie time capsule.Common to each of the sessions was the attentiveness of conference attendees, mostly young and many aspiring artists, paying homage to forbearers such as Seymour Stein, the founder of Sire Records, or drawing inspiration from British female punk pioneers, the Raincoats.

Ralph “Soul” Jackson, Photo by Andi State

The joint appeal of the city and the festival’s reputation facilitate the task of attracting in demand artists such as the Girls, Yuck, AraabMUZIK, and Purity Ring. But POP digs a bit deeper with edgy programming, that reflects the passion of music lovers unconcerned with market research, by curating lineups that showcase revolutionary artists. Recognition for roots artists were as varied as Sal Principato, frontman of Liquid Liquid, pioneers of the mutant disco movement that inspired hip-hop, electro and new wave, to showcases honoring the legacy of Afro-Latin Souland Louisiana R&B and soul legends including the Velvelettes, and a rare appearance by Ralph “Soul” Jackson.

POP also afforded a rare opportunity to catch emerging Canadian artists who, despite the close proximity, have not achieved notoriety outside of Canada, and given the difficulties in obtaining visas, may not appear overseas for some time.


Despite its noble ambitions, POP is decidedly non-pretentious, affording festival-goers with access to buzz artists in intimate venues. Pop Montréal is held in partnership with the local tourism office, Tourisme Montréal, and the dividends of the close working relationship are readily apparent: Pop Montréal presents the city of Montréal in the best possible light, showcasing the diversity and flair that makes Montréal a cultural destination. Sharing a characteristic of other vibrant music festivals, such as Brooklyn’s Northside festival and Portland’s Music Fest Northwest, that take place in artist enclaves, POP provides an immersive experience that encourages interaction at local venues which provide a flavor of the host city.

Montréal’s diversity is evidenced by two communities (English and French speaking) that coexist easily but tend to gravitate towards different neighborhoods, or in some cases, different establishments within a neighborhood. The city’s diverse nature is on display, and on the minds of many showcasing artists, who attempt to reach out to fans across communities. 21-year old English folk artist Laura Marling is candid, admitting up front at her show in the ornate Corona Theater that she does not speak French, but humorously regaling the audience with her self-deprecating attempts to learn French by osmosis, as well as a secret passion for things Canadian.Laura brings an old world soul to her performance that belies her youth, transcending any perceived language barrier.

Dominique Young Unique by Chloé Laëtitia

As a multilingual city, Montréal possesses a natural advantage over other festival cities, serving as an international gateway into world music and French speaking artists. The festival lineup is as varied as the city’s polyglot influences, ranging from the youthful enthusiasm of breakout performers such as Dominique Young Unique, Frankie Rose and the Outs, Kid Sister and Yuck to global artists such as Tahiti 80, Miles Cleret, Kou Chou Ching, El Hijo de la Cumbia, Babukishan Das Baul, and AEIOU hailing from as far as Taiwan, India and South America.

POP affords the opportunity to sample these artists across different neighborhoods, most within the hipster enclave of Mile End, including the commercial strip along the boulevard St. Laurent (popular with the English-speaking crowd), the posh St. Viateur strip, and the adjoining French-speaking section along rue St. Denis. Other venues allow visitors to explore the Latin Quarter, and the working class neighborhoods of Saint Henri and Little Burgundy. Local artist showcases took places in venues as varied as the concrete jungle Park Jean Drapeau to the rooftop of game developer Ubisoft.

Random Recipe atop the Ubisoft Rooftop, Photo by Chloé Laëtitia

POP utilizes venues that are tightly clustered within the city’s different neighborhoods, a layout that forces festival-goers to get out and explore, whether by metro, on foot, or in line with local custom, by bicycle. POP is staged at a grab bag of different venues that tap into the city’s polyglot ethnic and cultural influences: music halls, theatres, dance clubs, performance art spaces, churches and parks.

Nearly a quarter of the over fifty venues are located in the bar and club district along St. Laurent within close proximity of McGill, Concordia, and UQAM universities, affording an opportunity to work through a densely packed schedule. Bouncing between clubs, first it’s the multi-talented Aussie Liam Finn at O Patro Vys, an upscale bar located on the high end Mt. Royal Avenue. The bar rapidly fills up, creating an immediacy appropriate for the forthcoming surprising portrait of a young artist who ably carries on his family lineage of lyrical pop-rock compositions. Live, the boy can thrash, looking a bit like Zach Galifianakis on speed, capable of laying siege to every instrument on stage. Finn’s bandmates are wise to allow him to roam free, and he switches off between guitar solos, sweet ballads, and assaulting the percussion as a one-man wrecking crew.From here, it’s off to Divan Orange, a steambox whose steady state seems to be packed to the gills. Vancouver’s Japandroids, celebrate the in-vogue two-man guitar-drum combo that propelled them to notoriety in 2009, play a feedback drenched set that has fans pouring into the street.Close by is the relatively cavernous Club Lambi, allowing for a quick dash to catch the gorgeous shoegaze pop of Asobi Seksu.

Purity Ring, Photo by LP Maurice

A few nights later, Divan Orange showcases the spooky and ethereal set by the much anticipated Purity Ring, combining Megan James’ haunting vocals with the rhythmic percussive pyrotechnics of Corin Riddick (formerly of Gobble Gobble) on a contraption built for the science fair, in a setting marrying trip hop beats with a steampunk aesthetic. The rapt audience is deathly silent, punctuated by squeals of delight, breaking into rapturous applause between each of the set pieces. The ideal vantage point this set seems to be perched atop benches on either side of the narrow venue, balancing from the rafters and the crowd below.

Manko Doi of Yuck, Photo by Inma Salcedo

Just as the set peaks with their breakthrough single “Ungirthed”, the band leaves the stage abruptly, not out of malice, but due to the fact that the band has exhausted its repertoire, the bane of bands riding the hype cycle. The gathering of the hipster tribe is left wanting more, but take comfort in having witnessed a historic set.

The Cabaret Mile End seems to draw a mostly under-21 college crowd for sets by buzz band Yuck, and carrying over to punk legends the Raincoats.The predominantly French-speaking St. Denis street is home to the Quai des Brumes, and the venue with the most rambunctious energy of any in the festival, the cave like L’Esco. In a bit of an initiation, the doorman questions me roughly, perhaps to make sure that I didn’t wander off the reservation by accident.

Up Close with Parlovr at the cave-like L’Esco, Photo by LP Maurice

Once in, it’s impossible to move, but that’s hardly the point. The joint is infused with a punk immediacy, the low ceilings, slanted floor, and claustrophobic environment an ideal setting for singing along to the high energy grunge-pop anthems of local favorites Parlovr. Casa del Popolo, by day the local hangout for Montréal’s resident artists, accommodates at most several dozen for shows in the back room, the ideal setting for local artists, notably noise artist Copcar Bonfire and electro duo the Brusque Twins.

If it’s Sunday, it must be Sacred: Patrick Watson and friends at Federation Ukraine, Photo by LP Maurice.

The most unique venues are two churches. The Fédération Ukranienne, at different points a Methodist church and synagogue, retains a grandiose setting, with wonderful sightlines, church pews, balcony seating and beautiful acoustics suited to the vocal pyrotechnics of tUnE-YaRds, the raucous, O Brother Where Art Thou?roots sound of classic Quebec folk artists Canailles, and Patrick Watson’s friends and family hootenanny, Sacred Sunday.

The church basement of the Église Saint-Édouard, a Catholic church, gets heavy use as the convening center of gravity, serving as host to the opening party and fashion show, the closing party, and late-night sets highlighted by the fuzz-induced feedback of Montréal band No Joy and the no holds barred, full contact experience that is Fucked Up.The subterranean setup, the serving pantry and folding table set up of bars, and tile floor all contribute to a hearty church social aesthetic, an outpost located in a residential area removed from the bars and clubs largely concentrated in the Mile End.

Think About Life, Photo by LP Maurice

The city’s many theatres are home for the more popular bands, ranging from Metropolis for Chromeo and a special small theater homecoming set by Arcade Fire, the Theater Corona in the Saint Henri neighborhood for sets by Girls, Stephen Malkmus & The Jicks and Laura Marling, and perhaps the crown jewel of venues, the ornate Theater Rialto. For Redd Kross, their first show in Montréal in close to fifteen years showcases their unflappable spirit. Starting out as the Tourists in 1978, Redd Kross anticipated the modern DIY movement, bridging music, film, TV and pop culture, through a series of covers and experimental offerings. On stage, the McDonald brothers at the band’s center exchange huge grins and have the raw energy more typically associated with metal bands, as they tear through a riveting set in the Rialto Theatre, a venue that seems overly ornate for the power-punk dynamism of the band, but well suited for the pedestal to which they have ascended, as long lost legends.

The Rialto also plays home to a local hero, Jean Leloup, who has attained legendary status in the Quebecois community for his fusion of elements of African traditional music with French pop, yet continues to experiment, gaining a wider audience with a global audience, particularly in Europe.

Jean Leloup and the Assassins, Photo by Chloé Laëtitia

Where others might have played it safe with a high profile headlining slot, Leloup uses the opportunity to debut his latest side project, an ambitious effort called Jean Leloup and the Last Assassins, an avant garde project in which he accompanies a pair of poets who riff to his music in English. His set at the Rialto Theater plays like a triumphant recap of his career. But when the set turns to the newer work, many in the audience sit on their hands in polite indifference to the new direction. Poet collaborator Virginia Tangvald sings a song about a life of domestication, which she accompanies with an awkward pantomime of basic household chores like washing and sweeping to a stony silence. But just as quickly, Leloup launches into an old classic, and the audience comes alive. All told, it’s a fascinating scene, the patriotic fervor with which the locals shimmy and shout along to his classic anthems in cathartic release, demonstrating the multi-generational appeal for a French-Canadian artist who rewards the audience’s devotion by playing for an additional hour.

The final night is bookended by the appearance of two legends: one well-known and the subject of some controversy, the others under the radar, but poised to breakthrough. Joy Division has enjoyed mythical status, given lead singer’s Ian Curtis suicide in 1980, just weeks before the band was scheduled to tour in the US in support of its debut album, Unknown Pleasures.Peter Hook’s decision to play the legendary album in its entirety, as the long awaited debut of the band’s “lost tour” arrived in the US to much acclaim in 2010, having a seemingly cathartic effect on fans. But Hook’s decision to press on, despite misgivings of his New Order/Joy Division bandmates was a source of controversy, a subject made raw by a local story in the Montréal Mirror. It’s unclear whether the controversy would derail the band. Hook takes comfort in the bon vivre of the local crowd, greeting the audience in French, and his backing band, the Light, replicates Joy Division’s tight angular sound with relish.Despite a rough start due to uneven acoustics in the dance-oriented Club Soda, Peter seems invigorated by the hearty enthusiasm of the locals on hand to witness a historic show, feeding on their energy, the sound and band hitting stride about midway through the album, in time for the delightful “She’s Lost Control” and a triumphant finale that includes “Love Will Tear Us Apart” plus some New Order. While Peter Hook’s deep growl are a contrast to Ian Curtis’ distinctive warble, as one of the few members of New Order to outwardly show his emotions, exhorting the crowd on with his unflagging enthusiasm.

The final set of the festival sees the Raincoats, playing at Cabaret Mile End near McGill University, starting off slowly, the set marked by some pauses as if they were still in sound check as they gradually find their footing. Once the set kicks in, the Raincoats ladies reveal themselves to be the pioneers that they are, displaying a highly distinctive edge meshing guitars, violins, and alternative instruments channeling Brian Eno, David Byrne or Laurie Anderson. Through their free form experimentation and their raw DIY energy, one sees their inspiration on a whole canon of ’90s indie artists: Nirvana, Beck, Hole, Pixies and the Breeders.POP Montréal’s inspired programming and intimate vibe easily differentiate it from countless other festivals.POP Montréal’s bookings appear to be ahead of the curve. Artists such as Purity Ring, Grimes, and AraabMuzik received outsized attention at last fall’s CMJ. The untapped genius of DIY pioneer R. Stevie Moore is set to be tapped at the upcoming SxSW conference. And, not surprisingly, the Raincoats are experiencing a bit of a revival, poised to become the darlings of upcoming festival bookings, as evidenced by their debut appearance in Texas at the upcoming Denton 35 festival.

In the second part of this story, we will take a closer look at POP Montreal’s relationship with the local music scene.