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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

TOP 10 ASPECTS OF THE MONTREAL MUSIC SCENE

COOK'S TOP 10  |  2013

TOP 10 ASPECTS OF THE MONTREAL MUSIC SCENE  |  ANTOINE LECLERC

“Montréal, c’est de ta faute. Je t’aime trop, c’est pour ça.” 
– Dédé Fortin, Les Colocs

Ah, Montreal. She’s quite the trip. I love her dearly, and hate her fiercely. I am amazed by her effervescence and overwhelmed by her franticness. I am at peace with her soulful melodies, and quite furious with her erratic rhythm. I have a sweet and sour rapport with her, for sure.
I’m not alone, might I add. Lots of musicians, for instance, have expressed their own ambivalent ideas about Quebec’s metropolis, including Xavier Caféïne, Bran Van 3000, The Damn Truth, Antoine Gratton, and many more.
Such tributes should come as no surprises: Montreal has a very particular music scene. With the year coming to an end, we thought it would be a good idea to point out some of its most defining aspects. Just for the record: no one is claiming that these aspects are exclusively possessed by Montreal, or that all these aspects are necessarily positive. In fact, fueled by that love and hate relationship I have with her, I will try to speak of her qualities as well as her flaws.

Here we go.


1. It’s Bilingual (and Even Multilingual)

The most famous classical poet to ever come out of Montreal, Émile Nelligan, was born from a Irish English-speaking father and a Québécoise French-speaking mother. He lived near Carré St-Louis, facing the fountain. In my very humble opinion, such artists are the symbol of Montreal’s cultural foundations. 

There are two main languages that started spreading through this city at its beginnings and although some of our elders would love to see us fight over the differences between the two tongues, new musicians generally tend to do the opposite. There are very healthy multi-genre music scenes in both French and English in this city, and the two of them mingle, waltz with each other, party along one another’s side. When Kid Koala and Karkwa finished playing at the massive POP outdoor free show a few years ago, Arcade Fire’s leader Win Butler stepped on stage, ready to rock, and said: “A DJ, a French band, and an English band in the same show. This feels like home.” 

More often than not, the two core languages also mix with others. Take the members of Nomadic Massive for example, who sing and rap in Shakespeare’s and Molière’s tongues, but also in Spanish and Creole. Of course, there is also Jewish rapper, musician, singer, and producer Socalled, who wrote Tales from Odessa, an entire musical in Yiddish. Plus, anyone walking down Main passed 10:00 p.m. is likely to hear lyrics in Wolof or Portuguese blaring out of Les Bobards or Balattou.

In brief, this city is lucky enough to have a multilingual identity. In my very humble opinion, such a fact should be celebrated and, thankfully, it often is.


2. Rents are Cheap, So Newcomers are Numerous

Most musicians that come from medium-sized urban centres or rural areas understand that moving to the city is likely to help their chances to “make it.” Therefore, the ones who are based in this part of the world usually consider one of three big cities in the country as a potential destination: Toronto, Vancouver, or Montreal.

The thing is: Montreal’s average rent per month for, say, a one bedroom apartment in the city centre is around 400 to 500 bucks cheaper than its Toronto and Vancouver counterparts. For musicians, especially the ones who are attempting to transform their artistic hobby into a professional occupation, such a gap is not negligible.

And so, on top of the Quebec- and Maritimes-born projects that tend to migrate to Montreal because of its proximity to their home ground, artists that air from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, rural Ontario, and even the States come to join the party. Such a reality gives birth to random and often fruitful encounters. It’s resolutely good for music.


3. It’s Summer-Centric

Thankfully, initiatives such as Igloofest and Montreal en Lumière are changing this reality a little bit, but it remains that Montreal music lives almost exclusively in the festival-filled summertime. It can be problematic.

Having to choose between an array of amazing shows that all happen on the same July night is a bummer when you know you will be flipping through listings to find a single attention-worthy one in the dead of November.

I know, it’s a matter of weather. However, on top of the two abovementioned winter fests, there is another very convincing proof that the climate does not have to stand in the way of a good musical event: POP, which happens at the end of September, or in early October. So there. It’s possible. Let us keep pushing for things to change for the better. Year-round music, that’s what I’m talking about.


4. It’s Small, but Most Scenes Have a Local Chapter

At one point, I was roommate with a dude who produced psychedelic trance and another one who forged a dark brand of drum’n’bass. I had not heard of these genres before they introduced me to them. Yet, I was amazed to find out that both these styles of electronic music, which are much more popular in other places on the planet, have their local scene here in Montreal. Granted, these scenes are fairly underground and small, but they exist.

That’s when I realized that, in fact, there are not many music scenes that do not have a few representatives playing in Montreal bars, clubs, parks, or lofts. Punk, metal, hip hop, dirty folk, post-punk, traditional music of all kinds, reggae, country, classical, classic rock, psychedelic rock, you name it. Chances are you’ll find it here.


5. It’s Prone to Stylistic Fusions

Of course, if the scenes are small and numerous, it makes them very likely to open to each other and collaborate. Since there are less people playing the same music, it makes bands leave the notion of competition somewhere in the distance, in order to focus on cooperation.

That is, of course, not an absolute. Some scenes remain very hermetic and closed-minded. Alright, it’s time for a rant! Consider this: some guy who was spinning house and techno at the Mont-Royal gazebo (set up as an “up-and-coming DJs” stage, if you wish) on a beautiful Tam Tam Sunday got a tap on his shoulder in the midst of his set. He was alerted that a petition had been signed on the spot by a bunch of psytrance kids, urging him to get off the decks, or to start playing psychedelic trance. Needless to say, this kind of behaviour, on top of going against several core principles of the beautiful rave culture, is not very in line with the overall Montreal spirit.

But let us consider that episode as the exception that confirms the rule. Fortunately, such a rule still prevails in Montreal.

Thus, chanson française superstar Pierre Lapointe sings a verse in Malajube’s most well-known indie rock piece Montréal -40ºC, Bran Van 3000’s MCs are the ones rapping on Misteur Valaire’s electropop piece Ave Mucho, scratch maestro DJ Brace remixed Random Recipe’s acoustic hip hop piece Without You, country music act Avec pas d’casque played a concert with modern classical music stars Quatuor Molinari and Philippe B in a church… Quite inspiring stuff.


6. It’s Proud of Its Stars, and Eager to Turn Them into Legends

When a Montreal-based musical project makes it big, every Montreal-based music fan gets very ecstatic. Think of the buzz surrounding acts such as Arcade Fire, Godspeed, You! Black Emperor, the Dears, Leonard Cohen, the Sainte-Catherines, Kid Koala, Bran Van 3000. They get elevated, remixed, revamped, celebrated, invited everywhere, talked out in the most hipster of settings. They have that local legend glow, that “I was here when they started” rep. 

Like the inhabitants of most cultural centres, Montrealers are proud to be from where they are, they glorify their favourite local bands, they say “we” and “us” when speaking of certain scenes. That unconditional love is often somewhat arbitrary, but it’s nevertheless quite heartwarming. There would not be international music scenes if it was not for local scenes’ grassroots excitement, and there would not be any grassroots excitement without die-hard fans of everything local. So I say: let Montrealers get excited all they want.


7. It’s Internationally Ambitious

Montreal is very open to the world and it does not shy away from exploring its international ambitions. More and more demonstrations of that eagerness pop up here and there.

Namely, Avalanche Productions’ M for Montreal festival have had stands at both NXNW and SXSW in the last few years. On top of that, Osheaga seems to attract more and more big names every year, which makes it another local festival with amazing international pull (some of the other ones being the Jazz Fest, Nuits d’Afrique, and the Francofolies).
In fact, such ambitions have even been made official. Indeed, local leaders launched the Montréal Métropole Culturelle project a few years back, a program whose “priorities […] include giving residents' greater access to culture, investments in cultural infrastructures, funding artistic organizations and promoting recognition of Montréal in Québec, elsewhere in Canada and outside the country.”

I sure like the sound of that. However, with Coderre sitting in the mayor’s chair, I am curious to see how this plan will unfold. Probably very slowly, with a healthy dose of corruption. Oh well.



8. It’s Full of Buskers

I know, this is not an especially unique trait of our city, since most urban centers have their own street-performing musicians, but I feel like not mentioning it while speaking of Montreal’s music would a crime. Buskers thrive here, they pay their rent doing this, literally. Walking down Main, or Mont-Royal, or Sainte-Catherine, one is always sure to catch a glimpse of musical goodness.

Cheesecake Ninja, an electric guitar / drums duo, has been rocking the Berri and de Maisonneuve corner every summer (and winter!) for a few years now. One-man-band Scott Dunbar used to sing his soulful pieces with his accordion at various spots around the Plateau. Guitarist Ivette Meow went back and forth between the Atwater Market and that cobblestone stretch of Prince-Arthur to play one of the 200 songs she knows by heart. I’ve also had good moments watching the dirty folk unit at Mont-Royal metro that plays covers and originals in both French and English. In the midst of that musical fervour, J-P the rhyming hobo walks around all these concrete troubadours, still, panhandling his way through the day.

In other words: roam in Montreal. Music will find its way to you.

9. It’s Ignored by Mainstream Radio Stations, Celebrated by Student Airwaves

I was in Australia once, sitting in some car, listening to the radio. The station (Triple J) we were on played a song by this up-and-coming French singer. In French. In Australia.
It seems like, in every city of the world, there is at least one mainstream radio station that has its head out of its ass enough to play local, new, unorthodox, risky stuff. The leaders of such stations understand that any magic is undeniably going to happen outside of one’s comfort zone.

In that light, us Montrealers would be allowed to hope for great things from our radio stations. Indeed, if Triple J plays French songs in the land of Oz, surely at least one local Montreal station is there to serve the same sort of exploratory purpose… right?

Nope.

As it is, all mainstream radio stations in Montreal are very reluctant to play local stuff, let alone risky local stuff. Pointing fingers at specific stations would be a mistake: it’s a global problem. French or English mainstream stations systematically ignore new, up-and-coming acts. Case in point: it took Arcade Fire ages to get recognition in Montreal. For the first few YEARS of the legendary band’s career, it was unanimously applauded in Europe, in the States, everywhere else in Canada, but NOT in their hometown of Montreal. Ironic, I know.

In light of such blatant failure from these stations to give local acts a chance, we must turn to student stations. Université de Montréal’s CISM, McGill’s CKUT, Concordia’s CJLO, UQÀM’s CHOQ all have great shows, hosted by great music-loving freaks, devoted to their local scene. Community station CIBL is also known for its strong encouragement of local artists. In our bad luck, we are at least lucky enough to be able to count on these players.


10. It’s Threatened

Yes, you read right. That gorgeous rhythmic spontaneity, that amazing musical potency, that marvelous melodic impulsiveness that we consider so typical of our city is being threatened.

I personally found that out when someone sent me Sam Robinson’s very enlightening article in the Bull & Bear.

You’ve heard of it, the phenomenon is called “gentrification”. A boho neighbourhood gets noticed by young, fairly wealthy professionals and/or families. Then, contractors erect tall condo towers in that area, in which these people move. New stores open (kicking the old ones out), rents rise quickly, and before you know it, municipal laws are being changed to accommodate these newcomers. Noise regulations are the most popular ones.

And what side do you think the cops are on? Allow me to quote Robinson, who speaks with very eloquent words about the matter:

“Police-enforced gentrification is coming down on the Plateau, largely encouraged by a small set of residents making extreme, escalating demands at the cost of everyone else. Take Kalmunity’s fated St. Laurent performance as an example. The group was hit with the $1,250 noise violation fine just before the scheduled end of their act around midnight. Apparently, a veteran act can’t even play music before twelve o’clock anymore. On the Main. Does this sound like Montreal?”

It does not. It sounds like the awful first chapter of a dystopian cultural future. Music in our city, the way it flows through its veins, the way it erupts from everywhere and gives birth to new movements, new scenes, new sensations, new ideas, that beautiful and poetic notion of “music in Montreal” is undeniably under attack. It is being threatened by comfort-seeking squares, who are now backed up by police officers. “Métropole culturelle”, you say? That’s a very bad start.

As music lovers, we must rally, speak up, take action. Fortunately, someone already paved the way.

Hey what the heck, why not make it our New Year resolution? Let us stand on guard to make sure Montreal remains what it has been for years and years: a musical incubator. 


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