Clip: Cold Fusion: Montreal's Explosive Music Scene
Cold Fusion: Montreal's Explosive Music Scene
By DAVID CARR
Published: February 6, 2005
THE search for the next big thing frequently ends up in small places.
Hidebound by cloying commercial radio and clueless record executives, the
American pop music scene has frequently depended on cities at the edges of
the cultural map to provide a much-needed shot of originality. Seattle,
Minneapolis, Austin, Tex., and Athens, Ga., have all served as temporary
pivot points, churning out bands and defining the sound of the moment. Even
Omaha had its 15 minutes not so long ago. The momentary consensus seems to
come out of nowhere - as if someone blows a whistle only those in the know
can hear, and suddenly record executives and journalists are crawling all
over what had previously been an obscure locale.
So which American city is the next stop on this fickle, itinerant history?
It's a trick question for the time being, because the answer seems to be
Not French Montreal, either: the next big pop movement will not involve
accordions accompanied by crooning chanteuses. This one involves a coven of
English speakers who have banded together up and down Boulevard St. Laurent
in the Mile End neighborhood, filling lofts, community centers, bars and
restaurants with sumptuous noise. Montreal, which leaves serious business
to Toronto and revels its a work-to-live ethic, has drawn Anglophone from
all over Canada to form bands, record labels and a full-blown scene.
The French speakers may own the town - they are a 60 percent majority - but
English-speaking bands are the ones being heard beyond the city limits.
Locked out for the most part by Quebec radio and television, at least a
dozen Montreal acts are reversing the normal United States-Canadian
cultural polarity, producing records that have American audiences and
record companies paying rapt attention. The band Arcade Fire stormed into
American consciousness last year with a grand, swelling, choir-inflected
sound. Their transnational incursion has been accompanied by the catchy
lyricism of Sam Roberts, the oddball pop of the Unicorns and the romantic
goth-pop of the Dears, along with a host of other local bands. Vice
magazine, a foul-mouthed, hilarious Montreal-bred phenomenon, is now in
Brooklyn with a record label that includes hometown acts like the Stills
and Chromeo. Toss in the more mainstream success of Simple Plan - about two
million units sold - you can hear music with a Montreal address on any
radio in America.
The city shares a few key elements with temporary-musical-capital
predecessors like Austin and Seattle. Being the biggest destination in a
region almost guarantees an influx of musically inclined, disaffected young
people to both play in and listen to bands. Bad weather helps, because it
keeps songwriters inside and bands rehearsing. And perhaps most important,
a nascent musical scene requires lots of cheap real estate for musicians
and their fans to hang out and play in.
But in Montreal, those durable elements of musical invention are
accompanied by a surprising political twist. Ten years ago,
Anglophone-oriented money, people and resources pulled out - much of it for
Toronto - leaving vacant buildings and a simmering conflict between the
French and English speakers of Montreal. The threat of succession was
supposed to end Anglophone viability in a majority French culture.
Instead, it seems to have led to an artistic regenesis. Minority groups
working against a dominant culture have created lots of great music - think
of Jim Crow America or apartheid-era South Africa. But unlike those groups,
Anglophones aren't so much oppressed as irritated by their inability to get
booked in local clubs or played on Quebec radio. In the lexicon of high
school cliques, the French speakers, who are bilingual whenever they want
to be, are the cool kids. Anglophones are outsiders as a matter of course,
always promising to work on their French, but mostly finding succor and
affinity among other English-only speakers, who compose seven percent of
the population of the city.
At the same time, Montreal's vaguely socialist and communitarian politics,
along with the city's reputation for hedonism, has produced off-the-grid
parties in lofts and musician-run clubs, and plenty of opportunities for
new and challenging music to find an audience. On an absolutely frigid
recent Tuesday - a quiet night in the quietest time of year - three no-name
bands were creating a racket at the recently opened Le Divan Orange, en
Anglais, merci. Hundreds of fans jammed their puffy coats in various
corners. Even though Canadian liquor stores were on strike and the
cigarette packs featured vivid portraits of diseased lungs, people were
consuming both like recently escaped convicts. The bands shouted into the
din, and the audience - mostly - listened. Dan Seligman, creative director
of Pop Montreal, a four-year-old festival, suggested it was just another
night in the city that cannot get enough of its musicians. "We are a
minority within a minority in Quebec," he said. "Living inside a French
bubble, the music is very important to the kids here."
Despite its countercultural vibe, Montreal's Anglophone music explosion
enjoys government support. Through an agency called Factor - the Foundation
to Assist Canadian Talent on Records - the government finances demos,
videos and tours. Government-sponsored rock may sound like an oxymoron, but
the Dears, the Stars and the Unicorns have applied for and received Factor
funds. That kind of protective oversight, oddly juxtaposed with a punk
rock, do-it-yourself ethic, makes Montreal a nice place for a young person
with a guitar to land.
In fact, most of the city's rock clubs on the Plateau, a historically
immigrant neighborhood north of Sherbrooke, are filled with the work of
artists - the tax credit given to gallery space does not hurt - and many of
the people who play bass or spin records also paint. "The Plateau is a
little breeding ground," said Gene Pendon, a founder of the Heavyweight Art
Installation, an artistic collaborative that paints pictures on the spot
for various festivals and shows.
Of course, painter-bassist-performance artists don't earn much, but in
Montreal, they don't need to, according to Daniel Webster, a local producer
for more than 20 years who runs two clubs and a production company, and
something of a godfather to the alternative rock scene. "You can get by on
very little here and put a lot into making your art," Mr. Webster said. And
he said the conflict over language is overblown: "It is our little secret
that there really ended up being no insurrection here," he said. "It's been
peace, love and Jack Frost."
It helps that most musicians could care less about "making it" in the
traditional sense. In fact, rather than lunging for a lavish advance, many
of Montreal's most successful bands seem to resist the trappings of big
industry. Consider the case of what may be Montreal's seminal musical
success: GodSpeed You! Black Emperor, a dark-sounding, orchestral rock
collective that has used its success to finance several local clubs and a
record label. The band first emerged out of lofts and small bars, and
despite a third record that sold 70,000 copies in the United States, they
still have no major label contract, no management and no press agent. What
the band does have is custody of their career.
Efrim Menuck, a band member, suggested that Godspeed had achieved success
in part because they kept their goals realistic.
"We are still paying the rent doing this silly music thing," he said. "With
all this attention, I worry for the bands. Someone who nails it right out
of the gate and gets all of this attention, well, I rack my brain and I
still can't think of a happy end to that story."
Howard Bilerman, a former drummer for Arcade Fire, an engineer and the
overseer of Hotel 2 Tango, a recording space owned by members of GodSpeed
You! Black Emperor, is similarly unimpressed by the current attentiveness
of the American marketplace - including an article in the February issue of
Spin magazine that described the Montreal scene as "officially cool." "What
is going on here will continue to go on long after the attention has gone
elsewhere," he says. "Giving back is an important part of cultural life
here. History has shown that if you don't participate in the big music
industry, you will have a much longer musical career."
And if you do, you may have a much shorter local career. Take the case of
the Stills, alt-rock darlings who moved to New York for a stint and toured
with the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs, all of which earned them great American
reviews, 83,000 American album sales and the enmity of their old, hometown
On a recent Wednesday, they were in the midst of working on their next
album in a rehearsal space they share with Sam Roberts - the Dears practice
down the hall - in a massive industrial building that once served as the
North American headquarters of manufacturing for RCA. The band is clearly
enjoying making a new record and find quite a bit of humor in their current
reputation as sellouts. "It's not like we went gold or anything," said
Oliver Crowe, the bassist. "This city is renowned for its leftist politics.
Any kind of success is going to be a problem."
Dave Hamelin, the guitarist, says he is proud that in a local newspaper
poll, the Stills dethroned Godspeed as "most pretentious local act." On
their last album, "Logic Will Break Your Heart," the band addresses their
artistic and financial ambition on "Of Montreal:" with a lyric that
suggests, "Friends getting old, We all dig for gold, the crumbs and pieces."
Meanwhile, Montreal has become such a cultural magnet that some Americans
are relocating there. "We are a five hour drive from New York, and most of
the flights are about $150," said Jon Berry, owner of Regenerate
Industries, a public relations firm that works with various dance and
electronic acts in Montreal, including Les George Lenigrad. "From a
cultural and economic perspective, it makes perfect sense. It is a cheap
place to do business and to live."
Mr. Berry, who is from Vancouver, visited Seattle often when it broke
through to national prominence, had a taste of Austin when it was bubbling,
and says that the current rage in Montreal carries some of the same energy.
"Up until a few years ago, bands were skipping Montreal," he said, sitting
at Laika, an industrial-feeling lunch spot/club on St. Laurent, where
people were dining on pastries and cigarettes. "But then shows started
taking off in the lofts, and suddenly you have a big neighborhood full of
people interested in music. It's like Williamsburg, but it hasn't been
Jeff Waye is the player/coach of the Ninja Tunes Deadly Karate Chops, the
hockey team of the North American division of Ninja Tune Records, a dance
music label. It sounds like a caricature of Canadian life, but it is one of
25 coed teams, composed of music industry types, that compete every year
for the Exclaim! Cup, an oddly shaped but coveted totem of excellence. In
an interview before heading to practice, he agreed that Montreal was a
paradise for indie musicians and the small labels that sell them.
"You can argue that the push and pull of the two cultures have created
something more dynamic than the rest of Canada," said Mr. Waye, who
describes his own French as awful. "But I think it's more simple than that.
When I moved here in 1991, I was living in a nine-and-a-half room apartment
with two other people, and I was paying $175 a month. All of the money
left, and all of the art stayed."
Casa Del Popolo (4873 Boulevard St. Laurent), La Sala Rosa (4848 St.
Laurent) and El Salon (4388 St. Laurent) These clubs form the hub of the
Montreal music scene, and are favorites of bands like Stars and the Dears.
Barfly (4062A St. Laurent) Every band cuts their teeth here, and it is
still a meeting place for acts like the Stills and Starvin' Hungry.
Capacity is only 65, and if you want to use the bathroom, prepare to ask
the bass player to step aside.
L'Hemisphere Gauche (221 Beaubien E) Underground rock 'n' roll and pop.
Cafe Chaos (2035 St. Denis, Web site: www.cafechaos.qc.ca) This co-op run
club hosts bands that do justice to itsname.
O Patro Vys (356 Mount-Royal East, Web site: www.opatrovys.com)
Experimental music, not for the uninitiated.
Le Divan Orange (4234 St. Laurent) The bimonthly Mandatory Moustache nights
have been packing the house.
Much of the best music in Montreal is played in dank warehouses and
abandoned office spaces. Visitors may find them hard to access, but they
can start by checking www.montrealshows.com.
Fort Moshington (2106 Bleury) This is the fan-turned-promoter Aaron St.
Laurent's living room. Capacity is 50 people, and leave your shoes at the
The Electric Tractor (6674 L'Esplanade) One of the most popular warehouses.
Bands like the Gossip, Buried Inside, and Les Georges Leningrad have played
here. A warning: pesky neighbors sometimes shut down performances.
Cryochamber (1180 St. Antoine, Suite 315) Perhaps Montreal's least
conventional music spot. Last weekend, it sponsored a chili cook-off,
treating fans of the band Crime Moth to $2 portions, provided they brought
their own bowls.
Le Local (7159 St. Urbain) A new after-hours clubs, and home to bands like
Lesbians On Ecstasy and Pony Up.
There has long been an incredible French-inflected music scene in Montreal.
And let us further stipulate that there is a ferocious and vital
industrial/dance scene. But right now, the dominant Montreal sound is a
majestic kind of Anglo rock.
GodSpeed You! Black Emperor is instrumental to the scene and to the core,
making baroque mood-rock that almost swings. The Arcade Fire makes American
critics go all damp and sparkly. Whenever they show up, people mention the
The Dears, both dismissed and praised as twee rockers, are smart boys and
girls who mix dreamy, dancey instrumentation with wan, literate vocals. The
Stills, the band their hometown loves to hate, plays guitar-driven,
energetically sad songs. Their non-ode to songstress Alison Krauss is a
The Unicorns are reportedly on hiatus - O.K., broken up - but you could do
less well than to buy, their CD, "Who Will Cut Our Hair When We're Gone?"
Sam Roberts, one of the few basement/loft acts to gain genuine mainstream
acceptance, is the Canadian answer to Wilco.
Les Georges Leningrad is not a threat to end up in heavy rotation on radio
stations, unless the signal is coming from another dimension. Their beats
are prominent, their screeching more so, but they are extremely charming
performers. Wolf Parade produces heavily synthesized art rock, but with
catchy choruses. The Stars are the local favorites and unreconstructed
romanticists. Pony Up! seems to be composed of five of Liz Phair's little
sisters. If you like your girl-rock crunchier, do not forget that Melissa
Auf der Maur introduced all her shows on her last tour by proudly
announcing she was from Montreal.