As much as Americans like to perpetuate the idea that we’re swimming in one big melting pot, Montreal is even more of a mixed bag of political, cultural, and social nuts. The largest city in the province of Quebec, it’s a place where the old school influence of Franco culture meshes with the more progressive attitudes of the New World. The resulting atmosphere is totally dichotomous, and yet there’s also a balance in the struggle between realms. Having never been to Canada before, I found that Montreal made a perfect introduction to the Great White North.
Perhaps nowhere else on the continent can you see the diffusion of two languages on a day-to-day basis. It’s often a dizzying experience switching from French to English, with people constantly having to make adjustments on a whim. That whole dynamic is expanded in the actual cityscape. Hip pockets of Bohemian culture, little shawarma places piled onto a yoga studio, sit right next to a 150-year-old Ukrainian church. Montreal’s version of Chinatown consumes a couple blocks, but leaving and entering it is similar to taking back-and-forth trips to Mars. The food especially is a mixed bag. From Portuguese to Indian, burgers to vegan taco places, everything is lumped together, united solely by a bizarre love affair with anything related to potatoes. (Oh man: Poutine. Is. The. Bomb.) It’s an experience that’ll rip you right out of your comfort zone while leaving you with a new sense of awareness.
If there’s one uniting factor besides starches, it’s that every pocket of the city has a pronounced admiration for music. With every idea and identity and notion of beauty swirling together and throwing off sparks with equal intensity, you get some truly amazing sonics. Pop, R&B, soul, house, rock, punk, rap, classical, Indian fusion, K-pop — housing a multitude of genres is nothing new to major metropolitan hubs, but never have I experienced a place where everything is utterly unique and yet still totally dependent upon different genres.
It’s with all that in mind that POP Montreal is one of my new favorite festivals. So many sounds and cultures are represented, spread out in their own separate venues or paired together for exhilarating showcases. You can see an MC at one venue and the next act to hit the stage might be some ambient wizard. It’s more than just fun and entertainment; it’s a profound reflection of the city itself, and feeds back into that ever-bubbling melting pot. It’s easy to find idiosyncratic lineups at festivals, but POP Montreal makes the uneven and the dissimilar seem as real as any of the city’s neighborhoods. That’s really rare: not just to go to a city and see music, but to feel like you’re almost living the city’s journey yourself. I’ve been to plenty of festivals that have taken over people’s hometowns, but this was the first where I had to tell myself I wasn’t a resident.
What follows is an account of my four-day experience at POP Montreal. I ate too much, drank a little more than I should have, and took in the city with every step. (My feet are covered in what you might call blisters, but I call “bubbles of memory.”) I saw brash MCs and self-conscious DJs spinning playful ambient. I bore witness to visceral rock and roll at its purest and suffered through rock at its most pompous and bland. I danced a lot and I also got knocked off my feet with heartfelt confessionals. I did a lot, and my body and my brain are better and worse for all of it. What I’ll remember most, though, is that for a few days, I was a stranger in a strange land who didn’t feel so totally disconnected.
À la prochaine.
Thursday, September 18th
Look Vibrant at Divan Orange
Here’s my immediate thought upon the first note of Look Vibrant: “Oh man, this is the love-child of Passion Pit and Talking Heads.” The Montreal-based experimental pop outfit spent the next 40-some minutes both proving my hypothesis completely and utterly defying expectations. On the one hand, their formula is straightforward — take lots of great harmonies, cheery guitar tones and chirpy dance-rock synths, and spin weird little noises and flourishes into them. But where they leave behind those other two acts is in the unwavering, almost nerdy delight they seem to take in playing, rocking wide-eyed grins toward each other the whole set. That enthusiasm is not only unshakable for the audience, but it feeds back into the music, making what’s weird and fun and playful truly anthemic.
Forest Management at Federation Ukraine
A venue doesn’t have to be just a room. It can be an extension of the musician and his or her craft. Case in point: Forest Management, the ambient/drone project of Cleveland musician John Daniel. In any other setting, Daniel’s music would be enjoyable, a lush and intricate mix of slow-swelling synths and found sounds that eventually reach levels of movement bordering on actual life. In this venue, a rustic community center that’s easily 100 years old, it became grand and theatrical, filling the 200-person auditorium with an ethereal hum. Even amid an audience of a couple dozen, paltry numbers for the space, it was hard to not feel moved and part of something bigger than you. For someone just getting into the realm of ambient, Forest Management’s set was a powerful display of the genre’s universality.
Hua Li at La Vitrola
Hua Li, the stage name of musician, artist, and writer Peggy Hogan, is a rap label’s dream. The Montreal native fulfills the roles of ferocious MC and angelic hook singer in one compelling package. Her shows often become a battle of which side is more natural and, by extension, slightly more entertaining. On the one hand, her approach to rapping, a kind of early ’90s Lil Kim bravado mixed with the more insightful, emotionally resonant lyrics of a Jean Grae, would be menacing if it weren’t so raw and beguiling. Perhaps even more hypnotic is her turn as a crooner, similar to the sultry, jazzy vibes of Little Dragon’s Yukimi Nagano, but with a bit more of a wink. While you try to figure out which is better, you end up having an emotional experience regardless.
John Ward’s Electric Seance at Cabaret Playhouse
If you’re at a festival and you’re not sure who to cover, it’s occasionally OK to pick a band based solely on their name. How could anyone go wrong with John Ward’s Electric Seance? Though the title hints at a world of possibilities, Montreal musician John Ward and his backing band narrow it down to garage-y psych-folk that has its fingers in the honey pots of everyone from Camper Van Beethoven to Ty Segall. It’s an interesting blend of styles, but it often felt a little flat, coming up slightly short of some big, revelatory moment and instead sounding just like a less spirited take on its components. They have all the right parts to be a good band — oddly charming frontman, a good sense of cohesion and interplay between the members, and great lyrics that touch on everything from paranoia to escapism. Maybe it was their weird reduced set, or the slightly trendy vibe of the venue, but they had trouble calling forth any meaningful and sustained interest.
Ken Park at La Vitrola
Toronto’s Ken Park is an interesting dude, and I’m not just talking about his odd, jagged dance style. The producer spent six months in the old Communist block of Berlin recording his debut LP, You Think About It Too Much, using bits of local architecture and his own isolation to craft a blend of house-meets-ambient-meets-singer-songwriter-confessionalism. The whole affair is a giant study in diametric opposites. This is a man who, by his own admission, turned the house lights down due to “crippling self doubt,” yet explored life and happiness and selfhood with brutal honesty. The music itself was just as bifurcated, with lots of undulating rhythms and big, shimmery synths working to fill the spaces left by the grandiose wails of more abstract ambient. Park’s study in opposites totally worked, a dazzling mixture of dance grooves and strident emotionality. It was the kind of experience where you get lost completely in the rhythms, deep in your own self-exploration.
Crosss at Club Lambi
OK, forget what they say: Judge the book by the damn cover. My initial impression upon seeing Montreal’s Crosss was bewilderment — with the singer and guitarist looking like he should be in Fleet Foxes, a bassist with trendy, post-punk pedigree, and a drummer pulled from the peak of ’70s New York punk, nothing seemed to fit. How they look actually seemed to inform their music, with each of three disparate components mashing into one another.
The musical marriage wasn’t always blissful, as it took time for Crosss to really lock into a groove. When they finally did, though, every aspect melded into a mighty and morose cacophony of vintage black metal, surging psych-rock, and blistering hardcore. Every moving part felt important and vital, working in tandem to blur lines and bring the noise. However, the clear star of this show was the drummer, who may very well be the most incredible sticks-man I’ve ever seen live. And not just for the maddening volume or the possessed faces he made — he broke a snare drum 40 seconds in and later obliterated a hi-hat.
Femminielli at Divan Orange
What is a frontman? I mean, aside from a guy who sings lyrics and entertains with banter. He’s the source of charisma, obviously, but more than that, he’s the man who embodies the spirit of a band’s material and perpetuates it beyond sound and words. Sadly, that wasn’t the case for Femminielli. Their frontman, Bernardino Femminielli, is something of a sojourner, having played festival gigs the world over. Not that you could pick that up from his performance: dark and moody, he was trying to be like Nick Cave or Lou Reed without the inherent sex appeal, prowess, or humanity. It couldn’t have been the language barrier; Serge Gainsbourg’s been singing in French forever and the man is still a sexual dynamo. Instead, it was a case of too much oddball experimentalism and not enough actual, worthwhile connection. On the plus side, the band itself could easily have a career without its namesake, as their glam, disco, and drone was as lithe and groovy as it was heavy and foreboding.