M for Montreal: Day One

PopMatters Picks of the best of M for Montreal







Stay tuned for part two on Monday…

My voyage to the M for Montreal showcase, which featured 16 export-ready local acts over two days, began with the worst kind of airport red flag: my flight got cancelled.

No biggie, I was re-routed to another, more direct flight, which at first glance, seemed even better. Brandishing the moniker “international delegate” (or as the festival staff put it, a “tastemaker”), I would soon be on my way to this intense examination of some of the premiere emerging acts from the city. Or would I?

I stepped out onto the tarmac to find that I was expected to board a tiny 16-seat aircraft powered by propellers. I actually wondered aloud to myself “is this some sort of (expletive deleted) joke?” This didn’t exactly endear me to my fellow passengers, each similarly shaking with fear.

First, I have to cop to one thing: I am terrified of flying. Period. My initial thought when I was standing on the runway, readying to get onto the plane that was smaller than some cars I have been in, was “I have to get the hell out of here”.

But, in the spirit of international relations, journalistic integrity, and the pursuit of the freshest rock and roll in the world, I did what any self-respecting, tenacious reporter would do: I choked down a valium with the remainder of my latte, had a severe panic attack (always attractive in public!), forced myself to strap in, and started praying.

I did not stop until my feet touched sweet Canadian soil and I was safely in the arms of the crackerjack M for Montreal staff. It was, without hesitation, the single most horrifying experience I have had in my entire life, I can’t stress that enough. Lucky for me, the upcoming two days would hold in store for me a virtual musical bacchanal to assuage my airplane hysteria.

NUMERO [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Montreal is a city filled with good looking, skinny, impossibly fashionable people. Everyone smokes and if you don’t, you’ll start! Everywhere you look there are older women with rainbow shocks of punk rock hair color, tight pants, and fur. Outside the airport a Muzak version of Leonard Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” played. This is definitely more like being in Europe than in North America. It’s a beautiful world beseeched by cultural hybridity, and it rocks hard. So close in proximity to the US, the city and M for Montreal itself are some of the best kept secrets for the young, jet-set, and elite who are sick of average vacations and the same old boring music festivals.

This very special event ain’t child’s play: it is expertly-organized, and friendly. Visitors are given a personal cutting edge experience. In its sophomore year, M for Montreal draws industry types, press, and promoters from all over the world. While many festivals purport to be “international”, this is the one that delivers on that promise: there were delegates from almost every major European festival there to scout acts.

Funded mainly by the government of Quebec allows for a tremendously unique opportunity to showcase the city’s most bright talents for alternative markets in corners of the world that may have otherwise never known about them. This is a brilliant move on the part of festival organizers and the Canadian government.

Such a generous gift to the artists from the state is one that should be not only commended, but aped. Governmental support for the arts in the US might be controversially scarce, but our government’s support of up and coming music acts (rock and roll or otherwise) is practically non-existent. Add this fete accompli to the ever-growing list (pot smoking on the street, gay marriage, universal health care, gruyere cheeseburgers with remoulade) of things the innovative country has made work that need to be emulated by the States.

LES BREASTFEEDERS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

As part of the event, the first activity was a panel discussion with American speakers, led by Rhyna Thompson, an M for Montreal organizer and local artist manager. Providing insight to the US music market, specifically for Montreal bands, the talk featured Tom Windish (of the Windish Agency in Chicago, who works with acts such as Animal Collective), Brent Grulke (Creative Director of Austin’s South by Southwest festival), Tracy Mann (owner of MG Limited PR in NYC), Greg Diekroeger (Assistant Director of NACA — a group that brings events to college campuses), and Slim Moon (Senior Director of A&R at Rykodisc). Highlighting current industry trends (such as the notion that record labels might disappear altogether in the next few years), the panel dished out sage advice to an audience of eager artists.

“Things are happening really fast right now. It is a really exciting time,” said Grulke, while lamenting about the “old” way of doing things that is still engrained in the business end of the music industry. Mann had this practical advice for up-an-comers: “Everything is harder. You have to be in all of the places all of the time.” Listing avenues such as grassroots marketing campaigns, the internet and blogs, as well as popular media, she stressed the importance of not only telling good stories through music, but also coming up with the proper mythology for your act. Multi-tasking and a strong work ethic were the two most common talked about elements for new acts, but Moon put it more succinctly, saying that “talent is your best bet.”

The panel explored the impact the internet has had on promotion and sales of records and everyone seemed to be buzzing about the eventual downfall of traditional record labels as we know them. Moon talked at length about the internet facilitating and accelerating a band’s buzz on a global scale and the pressure this puts on labels to sign new acts to high risk deals.

One of the most interesting topics brought up at the discussion was, as Mann said “cultural and linguistic diversity in the industry”, and if geography does indeed matter. For Montreal bands (many of whom sing in French), this is an especially important facet of the business end. The panel acknowledged the need for proficiency in English when dong interviews, but the general feeling was that the tide was slowly turning in regards to what listeners were going for, and that having a reputation (no matter what language you are singing in) was the key to getting play in other markets.

CHOCOLAT [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Fortunately for those attending the evening’s band showcase, there were plenty of solid French-speaking bands raring to go. Chocolat, the event’s first act (who do sing in French), had the unenviable opening slot before the crowd could properly get their drink on, but managed to win most people over with their scrappiness and charm.

With a forceful swagger that invoked everything from The Stooges to the blues, Chocolat careened through an infectiously danceable with no shortage of soul. Mostly the attention was focused on lead singer/guitarist/harmonica player Jimmy Hunt, who possessed not only the best, most technically-impressive singing voice of the entire festival, but likely also the tightest pants, begging the age-old question “the tighter the pants, the tighter the band?”

PLANTS AND ANIMALS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Across the board, night number one was filled with surprisingly little mediocrity for a festival so broad in scope. Usually, one would expect to hate at least half the bands when seeing such a large volume, but the festivals organizers really ponied up Montreal’s finest. The second act, Plants & Animals echoed a lot of Chocolat’s bluesy sentiments, but it was third act We Are Wolves that, for me at least, was the night’s biggest winner.

Merging theatric with a pulsing wall of sound, the three piece act seemed to be channeling malevolent digital spirits with giant skull apparatuses strapped to their backs and the nasty, loud electric grooves that were interspersed with shocking squalls of guitar. Think of them as a younger, hungrier Liars with a low-fi edge. Their record, Total Magique was recently released in the US and the boys are currently taking their act on the road stateside.

TORNGAT [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

Torngat, which features a member of the Bell Orchestra, was one of the night’s nicest surprises, with a cache of epic, dreamy tunes that boasted a dueling horn section that traveled out into the audience for a striking effect. These guys rocked their horns out like their lives depended on it, with no shortage of showmanship or skill.

PRIESTESS [Photo: Marie Tremblay]

This innovative, sensitive sound was given a nice counter-balance sandwiched in between the abrasive metal of Priestess and the most frenetic band of the evening, Les Breastfeeders. The latter band brought a kick-ass French twist to a classic dance-rock sound and featured the only female band member of the first night. Also, as part of their act, they feature a truly bizarre tambourine player who wears ghoulishly macabre make-up and a cropped, fuzzy coat. Apparently, this member has caused quite a stir in the scene. It’s weird, but it works.

The respectful, congenial crowds of gorgeous, tattooed style mavens were far removed from the usual throng of snotty hipsters you would find at a comparable festival in the US. It was like being in another world, light years away from the jaded indie rock scene. There was a real feeling of camaraderie permeating M for Montreal on the first night, especially with local hero, the completely ageless Melissa Auf Du Mar (formerly of Hole and the Smashing Pumpkins, as well as a solo artist) presiding over the festivities, encouraging everyone to see every band.

It is an event like this that have the power to fill cynical hearts (like my own) with hope for the future of music, even when it seems like everything is up in the air. If the situation is as dire as we are being led to believe, then it is a relief to know that there is a contingent out there working their asses off and that at least someone out there who wants the world to see new, emerging acts.

The homespun feeling of M for Montreal really was the first time I have experienced a scene or a city as a whole really standing up for their hometown’s best and proudly promoting them; no matter the band’s style, and no matter how prolific they were or were not. It was intimate. And it was a nice change from the ordinary, gratuitous festivals I have experienced.

Stay tuned for part two on Monday…