Godspeed You! Black Emperor. Arcade Fire. Grimes. Student revolts. Montreal’s punk, DIY spirit continues to feed into the city’s music.
Words by Shirine Saad.
On a crisp August Saturday night, Montreal was damp and deserted. On an eerie street in the industrial neighborhood of Petite Patrie, the only sign of life was a piece of cardboard holding a glass doorway open. Music fans were coming to La Brique, a former textile manufacturer that had become a shoot house before two musicians converted it into a cultural venue. In a sprawling room filled with recycled velvet sofas, concert posters and musical equipment, skinny men and women with ’70s mustaches, mohawks and body piercings unpacked beer cans and chattered around the kitchen bar. As the lights dimmed, three musicians sat at a makeshift wooden table and started manipulating buttons on synthesizers, creating a dense, minimal, layered atmosphere while the audience watched in quasi-religious muteness.
The next evening, not too far into the Mile-End neighborhood, in a parking lot just south of a ghostly train track, musician Jason Sharp played wailing screeches on his tenor sax, as a monitor placed on his heart diffused rhythmic beats. His concert was followed by a series of film projections and performances organized by musician Radwan Ghazi Moumneh. The audience, a few hundred 20 or 30-somethings sitting on the filthy asphalt or standing around with their cans of PBRs, smoked quietly.
Facing them was a building made iconic within the history of Montreal’s rock scene. It was home to Hotel2Tango, one of the city’s first loft concert spaces and a premier recording studio, and home to the radical Constellation label through which the cult band Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GYBE) crafted their fame. “This is where it all started,” said musician Ben Shemie, sitting on a picnic bench. His tall lean frame slightly bending, his dark chiseled face looking up to the two-floor construction in thoughtful awe. Shemie, 32, is the lead singer and guitarist of the art-prog-rock band Suuns (housed by Secretly Canadian Records like artists Antony and the Johnsons, Yeasayer) – one of the handfuls of gifted new bands emerging from this endearingly understated music capital. Like most musicians, Shemie lives and works in the Mile-End, where, in the past decade, studios, concert venues and laid-back bars have lured massive talent from across the country.
In the ’90s, this area was known as the ‘Far West;’ it was a ghost town when the musicians of GYBE started playing concerts there. But the neighborhood soon became a breeding ground for countless bands and musicians – some of which, like Wolf Parade, Arcade Fire, Chromeo and A-Trak, became influential in the 2000s. The world started listening, and critics started labeling Montreal – and the Mile-End — the new Seattle or Williamsburg. The attention peaked at the unexpected nomination of the relatively obscure band Arcade Fire at the Grammys in 2011. And now, with the discovery of the intrepid Grimes, who grew out of a DIY music collective in the Mile-End and has since become an international pop darling almost overnight, critics are wondering what it is about Montreal that produces such raw talent.
Like Grimes, most of Montreal’s indie bands draw on the city’s general leftist environment and on the anti-commercial, collaborative spirit championed by GYBE since the ’90s. In this last bastion of French culture and socialism in North America, low rents, prestigious and affordable universities, a healthy artistic environment, a tradition of public support for the arts and a laid-back atmosphere have allowed musicians to thrive. This is the home of irreverent magazine Vice and Dov Charney of American Apparel, a city with a fierce hedonistic attitude where underage students party hard in decrepit loft spaces.
This is also a truly multicultural city where the tensions and exchanges between the French and English communities, which culminated with the 1995 referendum on the issue of separation between Quebec and Canada, have deeply impacted the music. Those tensions have reemerged in the last six months as the city witnessed violent riots and protests demanding lower tuition fees, higher arts funding and more integrity for French culture. Some are even demanding secession again….
Most of Montreal’s musicians look back to 1995 as a key year for the emergence of the music community. Threatened by the specter of secession and the referendum, several members of the Anglophone community moved to Toronto, transferring Canada’s business center to Toronto and leaving many buildings and apartments deserted. The alienated economy sent prices plummeting. Artists, lured by dirt-cheap rents and a burgeoning cultural activity, jumped on the opportunity.
In 1995, Mauro Pezzente of Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the band venerated by post-rock fans from around the world, moved into a loft space on Van Horne, a desolate street in a poor immigrant neighborhood, where he and his partner started organizing spontaneous concerts and performances. That was one year after Pezzente started the band with Efrim Menuck and Mike Moya, who, like him, are from Ontario. GYBE’s experiments, playing big, slow pieces divided into movements with layers of rich orchestral sounds, and influenced by free jazz, minimalist music and punk rock, enthused the artistic community.
“Godspeed’s music came out of an isolation, a loneliness,” explains Evelyne Côté, music critic and event organizer at major production house Evenko, which is in charge of Osheaga Festival. “The scene was so arid, there was nothing. So they isolated themselves in the Mile-End and started making music.” Soon the loft, renamed Hotel2Tango, became a DIY haven – a magnet for musicians looking to rehearse and play, artists working with silkscreen or wood shops. Some of the members of Godspeed founded Constellation records in 1997, which remains the band’s home label along with Thee Silver Mount Zion and Do Make Say Think. Constellation follows a fiercely anti-capitalistic, hyper-local ethic, refusing to work with major record labels and going as far as hand-crafting their own album covers, for example. Recently, the group has allegedly refused a massive offer from the Pitchfork Festival to focus on other projects.
Due to overwhelming attendance, Hotel2Tango had to close and was transformed into one of the city’s premier recording studios. Arcade Fire recorded their first album there. While the loft was the first important underground venue for the city’s musicians, soon as GYBE became successful Pezzente opened two other concert venues in the Mile-End, following their ethic of investing back into the community: Casa del Popolo and Sala Rossa. In the 2000s Casa became a “mecca” for musicians and music lovers, says Côté, who frequented the intimate vegetarian bar every day seeking new talent. Musicians were – and still are – invited to play for free; and many local bands have played their first gig there.
In 2002, after organizing an illicit the Stars and The Dears concert in a shady Chinatown basement, Dan Seligman, a student from Toronto, launched the Pop Montreal festival. He created a venue for emerging bands such as Arcade Fire, Broken Social Scene and Chromeo to play freely. “There was no underground festival at the time,” says Seligman, who moved to the city from Toronto to study religion at McGill University and stayed because of the city’s Latin joie de vivre. “We wanted the festival to reflect the community and the sensibility of the underground.”
Soon enough the New York Times declared the city a new music capital in a bombastic 2005 article that, while controversial, helped focus attention on the city’s emerging bands. In Spin, Rodrigo Perez listed Montreal as ‘The Next Big Scene’ that same year. “No really – Canada is now officially cool,” he wrote in his “guide to the bands and venues getting more than just northern exposure,” which included Arcade Fire, The Dears, The Besnard Lakes and Sam Roberts. Quickly new venues started opening, new labels were created and festivals started popping up everywhere.
Montreal is an ideal city for artists, much like Berlin. Within a few hours’ drive, musicians can play in New York or Toronto, but they remain sheltered from both cities’ relentless competition and prohibitive prices. Grants from the provincial and federal government, such as the much sought after FACTOR (Foundation to Assist Canadian Talent on Record), and tax cuts for cultural venues, help bands record, promote and tour.
Mostly, GYBE’s resonant success and refusal to sell out demonstrated to young bands that they, too, could create and experiment, and that they didn’t need to seek a major record deal or to move out to New York or LA. Similarly, despite their success, Arcade Fire have stayed in Montreal and kept full control of their music. “There’s a direct link between Godspeed and Arcade Fire,” says Evelyne Côté. “The creative intransigence, the refusal to play the game. Both bands were able to reach huge audiences while staying true to their origins.”
GYBE was also the inspiration for Sebastian Cowan, a young audio technology and music industry graduate from Vancouver who moved to Montreal in 2007 to open a DIY music space. “I had been to a party in a totally crappy warehouse in Vancouver,” says Cowan, now 26, “and I wanted to create something similar. I wanted to create positive change.” Cowan launched Lab Synthèse in a vacant space adjacent to La Brique. Building a tight knit community of artists, Cowan made his own music and helped his friends with theirs, burning their CDs and distributing them on his bike. The Lab then became Arbutus Records, signing musicians from Cowan’s entourage. Claire Boucher, whom Cowan had known from Vancouver, was then a neuroscience student who hung out at the space. One day, she locked herself up and started making music with a synthesizer and keyboards, mashing up different sounds she stumbled upon and creating layered, atmospheric melodies where her electronically-manipulated childlike voice loops in and out.
Grimes was born. Cowan helped her mix and master the music and signed her on to his label, releasing her first album on the internet and on cassette format. Boucher never graduated; local gigs and warehouse performances soon turned into sold-out concerts around the world and dithyrambic reviews. In 2011, the artist was picked up by 4AD (Bon Iver, Deerhunter), but Arbutus continues to control her music and career. And while Grimes has toured with Skrillex, posed for the cover of Dazed and appeared on Jimmy Fallon, insiders in Montreal maintain that she remains true to her DIY roots. In the end, says Cowan, she owes her sound to Montreal’s free, idealistic music scene. “If she had been a student in a different city,” says Cowan, “she wouldn’t be making music right now.” Boucher says she grew thanks to the tight knit community she evolved in. “Almost everything I know I learned from local bands,” she says. “Kyle from Flow Child taught me how to use a sampler in exchange for food in like 2010 or something, haha. I think I gave him olive oil and canned chickpeas. Almost everyone I know lives on one block. So you run into people all the time and everyone collaborates all the time. It’s really easy to make a ton of music because everyone is doing it.”
Further away from the pop radar but equally talented are a slew of new bands experimenting with different sounds. Three of Suuns’ four musicians are classically trained at McGill’s competitive music school, and listen to jazz and concrete music as much as Metallica. Their sound has been called cerebral, noisy and arty and compared to Sonic Youth. Similarly, the dense, dark environments created by Moonface, composed of one Wolf Parade alum and three Finnish musicians, recall the glory days of experimental rock. Moonface is now at JagJaguwar, Bon Iver’s label. Shoegazers Braids and minimalist electronic solo act Mozart’s Sister have also been on critics’ radars for the past two years.
While traditionally the French and English music communities have been separated (“we have different ADNs,” says Evelyne Côté), they have increasingly mixed throughout the years, producing fascinating hybrids. Not only is Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire French-speaking, she also plays the accordion in Quebec’s folk music tradition. In fact, some of Arcade Fire’s songs have French lyrics. Many English language bands, such as GYBE, Plants and Animals and The Dears, have French members. In parallel, the French language indie scene has been growing at a vey fast rate. A Francophone band, Karkwa, won the very competitive Polaris Canadian music award in 2010. Malajube has won countless awards and critical praises and play worldwide. As for hip-hop band Loco Locass, their politically-heavy pro-Quebec music has been the soundtrack for the recent mass protests.
Still, one current fear in the community is that the violent anti-Anglophone sentiment expressed by protesters and politicians might alienate the harmony of this otherwise tolerant city. “The bicultural city has a huge impact on who I am,” says Shemie, who sings about Canada’s legendary ‘two solitudes’ in his song “Sweet Nothing.” “Especially recently, the student strikes have sparked a really nice energy amongst the citizens about where we wanted to be headed and our values as a society. This is what makes it a democracy.”
With the music scene in Montreal just starting to reach its peak, which artists from the beloved city do you think are the next to blow? Chime in…