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.
Friday, September 19th
People Pretend at Barfly
People Pretend is an offshoot of Look Vibrant, sharing (at least on a temporary basis) a few of their members. But it couldn’t be any more different than its sibling band. Where Look Vibrant have struck a balance between the accessible and the oddball, People Pretend went entirely bonkers, crafting a bizarre and glitchy brand of pop based on kooky loops, samples, and blown-out vocals. Their set didn’t have quite the same connective punch as Look Vibrant, with the band more interested in being weird for the sake of weird. Of course, that dynamic is always going to intrigue at least those odd souls who are willing to run through musical refuse with the band on their journey through pop music’s most absurd back alleys. If you’re one of those people, you’ll find their melodies disarmingly catchy and their sweat-soaked fits of lock-kneed ecstasy (they call it “dancing”) pure fun.
HOMESHAKE at La Sala Rossa
HOMESHAKE is the pseudonym of Peter Sagar, the former guitarist for prank rock kingpin Mac DeMarco. On the one hand, Segar and his former boss/forever bro share a lot of similarities: their vintage dress, the shimmer and sparkle of the guitar tones, a clear devotion to classic (“dad”) rock, and a healthy sense of weirdness. (On this evening, Sagar made time to write around on the floor while pitch-shifting his vocals to hell, giving the audience a firsthand look at an exorcism.) Yet the similarities sort of stop there; Sagar is a different kind of rock god entirely. DeMarco wants to bring the weird party, and while Sagar can do that too, his jazzy take pushes things toward more emotional territory, with ballads about broken hearts and continuing a relationship through your iPhone. He doesn’t have nearly as much charisma (although who actually compares to DeMarco?), but he does expertly play the role of mysterious, possibly wounded singer-songwriter. When you get to a HOMESHAKE show, don’t expect to laugh or dance as much as you would with Mac. But if you want to have your heartstrings plucked, he’s your man.
No Aloha at Quai des Brumes
It may not be an official export, but I’d like to think that America gave Canada rock music. Of course, it wasn’t the most perfect transfer; case in point, Montreal’s own No Aloha. They represent perhaps the most bare-bones kind of garage rock — shambolic, energetic, and utterly jangly, with songs about girls, buddies, and eating pizza. Yet for some reason, while all the cogs appear to be in working order, the end result is just missing that spark of life-affirming energy that comes with even the most basic rock ‘n’ roll. Call it a lack of charisma or uncertainty about the setting, but it just lacked that oomph to really hit you in the brain pan. I personally blame the number of band members; if they stripped out the random extra vocalist and went to a drums-guitar-bass combo, things might pop a little more. For now, I’m just saying aloha, bros.
Paul Jacobs at Quai des Brumes
We’ve all seen them: the one-man bands doing double duty on drums and guitar. They’re usually giving off an erratic vibe, wild-eyed and manic, playing some furious take on the blues. Ontario’s Paul Jacobs is not like his musical brethren. I got the distinct sense he plays alone because 1) no one can keep up with him, 2) he’s too angry to be a team player, and 3) he might be too frightening for accompaniment. Given his absolutely demonic take on punk rock, it’s probably all of the above. With hair in his face and limbs that jolted and snapped like fleshy whips, Jacobs blasted through every song, a cacophony of percussion and mangled guitar landing somewhere between lo-fi punk and a massive spurt of unfiltered aggression. He sings angrily, he plays angrily, and he even sips beer with a hint of rage. Jacobs makes anger seem real and natural and totally alluring. He doesn’t need much more than himself to obliterate both your ears and your sensibilities.
Heaven For Real at Brasserie Beaubien
If you were to walk into any major cultural hub in North America, you could throw a tire and hit at least three bands who play nebulous jangly alternative/pop/psych/garage/indie rock. Halifax’s Heaven For Real would probably be one of the first bands struck square in the dome piece. That’s not to say what they do isn’t entertaining; they’re solid musicians, all three of them perfectly keyed in to one another, and they’ve found a way to seamlessly pair uneven song structures with great melodies and infectious energy. Some of their lyrical content has more of a cerebral scope, eschewing their peers’ odes to heartaches and house cats for existentialism and the inherent isolation that accompanies being too self-aware. Maybe I’m being optimistic for this band because I walked several miles to get to know them, but their amorphous indie rock is entertaining. I can’t say whether it’ll go big (it certainly has all the right components for success), but sometimes just being pleasurable is more than enough.
Construction & Destruction at O Patro Vys
Construction & Destruction is an apt name for this Nova Scotia-based duo. They’re less about building or breaking things down, and more about a sense of dichotomy. It’s in all aspects of their music: the lithe and ethereal female vocals versus the harder-edged, bluesier male vocals; pacing and restraint versus full-on auditory assault; and the influences of ’70s English proto-metal versus folksier tendencies. (They have one song devoted entirely to Cato the Younger which is both awesomely metal and pure nerdy goodness.) A lot of times, there wasn’t enough balance between those opposing elements, resulting in cuts that seemed way too blistering and metal punctuated by more abstract moments of experimentation. But when everything synced up, the pair’s set was equal parts grandiose and romantic, pulverizing and enlightening, aggressive and tantalizing. If nothing else, it was a sight to see two of the most polite and meek people I encountered throughout the whole fest absolutely tear shit up.
Saturday, September 20th
Jesuslesfilles at TRH Bar
Even if this concert had been terrible, the TRH Bar would have gotten the biggest gold star in the universe. Not only was the staff actually grilling hot dogs, but the stage was an indoor swimming pool. (The whole place has a skateboard theme, although that pool could also be the centerpiece of an awesome swimming-themed night club.) Luckily, Montreal’s own Jesuslesfilles knew how to stay afloat. I’ve struggled in the past connecting with bands who perform in other languages, but this five-piece was able to transcend any barriers with raw rock goodness. With a sense of ease and accessibility, they deftly blurred the lines between punk, indie rock, powerpop, hardcore, post-punk, metal, and any other loud and impassioned form of rock. Their one and only true allegiance, it seems, was to whipping the crowd up into a righteous fury, as throngs of kids poured into the pool to stomp around and smash into each other. It was chaotic and hectic and destructive, but in that really beautiful, life-affirming way. The band found a kind of childlike joy in generating all that sound and fury. Next time, I’ll bring some floaties and leap into the fray.
Holy Data at Divan Orange
In festivals like this, technical issues are bound to happen. How a band handles these hiccups can speak volumes about their mettle. In the case of Montreal’s Holy Data, a complete guitar breakdown just a few songs in was probably one of the most unwelcome road bumps. I can’t say they really handled it with grace, stumbling awkwardly through grating banter and pleas for house music while their guitarist frantically tried to get his gear working. After about 10 minutes, though, everything seemed fine and they took off again, picking up the pace and rocketing through the set. That, to me, is the one thing that speaks volumes about their music: existing in that undefined space between rock and synthpop, it doesn’t grab you right off the bat, but when it builds, it’s hard not to feel a euphoria in their romantic grooves. What they may lack in gravitas and showmanship, they make up for with profound musical displays that are both physically comforting and mentally challenging.
Pigeon Phat at Divan Orange
I wasn’t going to stick around for Pigeon Phat. Their name bothered me, and I may have wanted to go get beer at another venue. But then the singer-guitarist from Holy Data told the crowd that this Montreal collective should be playing arenas, and I had to stick around. So, was he right? Does this little band of rock weirdos have what it takes to headline, say, Montreal’s own Olympic Stadium? Probably not, but only because they’re the perfect band for tiny clubs and bars. On the one hand, their music doesn’t immediately seem like even the right fit for stadiums: even if it became wildly popular, the hot, seething cauldron of punk and pop topped with synths that sound like broken Halloween music seems suited for the jam-packed, sweat-soaked micro-stages of the Great White North.
Plus, I don’t think their frontman would do very well in those settings. Mostly, the man is a walking cesspool of brooding intensity and white-hot passion, leaping off the stage and screaming life advice (“Don’t let the darkness into your heart/ Don’t let the darkness tear you apart”) into people’s faces before dancing and hugging with folks, all before convulsing on the floor. Did the Holy Data gent mean they’re technically gifted enough for arenas? Sure, but I hope he’s wrong and Pigeon Phat keeps devouring little stages left and right.
OK at Barfly
Going in, I only knew that this was to be a solo show from the frontman of local heavy folk outfit OK. Despite not hearing the band in full the next day, I almost immediately and unequivocally preferred this configuration. The one-man version of OK’s folk seems like a better fit for the scope of their material. It’s all poetic and ethereal, a fantastical approach to romance and personal evolution and isolation that seems like it comes from the Robert Plant School of Songwriting. His voice, which has a certain awkward elegance to it, and some impassioned acoustic guitar seem like the only accompaniment you’d need for lines about feeling like “an ant in a pile of manure/a needle in the hay.” Any more noise or bravado behind those sentiments, and I’m pretty sure the whole thing would caved in on itself. As just one man, OK makes this relic from an artsy ’70s folk communion feel lively and warm, the perfect opportunity to sit down, have a beer, and get lost in the music for a bit. I apologize in advance for this: OK? More like pretty darn entertaining.
Wider Smile at Barfly
Like everyone out there, I have a few neuroses. Specifically, teeth: can’t stand to talk about them, and going to a dentist can often be arduous on the ol’ psyche. So wouldn’t you believe my luck when I strolled in to catch Montreal’s Wider Smile, whose set was punctuated with several teeth-related moments? (Specifically, a line about pulling out teeth and a song called “Adventures in Dentures” that features the title sung as a rousing chorus.) Was I unnerved a bit? Almost to the point of wanting to leave. But I didn’t, and I’m totally happy about my decision. Even if you’re not a teeth freak like me, you’re bound to have a similar experience with Wider Smile. From the jagged loops and satiny cheese of sax solos to the irksome sing-talk style and befuddling song structures, their moves are going to challenge you. But if you can overcome your own set of neuroses, then you’ll be left with a band who makes tackling uncomfortable personal perceptions easier by wrapping them in danceable melodies. On the plus side, at least you won’t want to manically brush your teeth afterward.
Saxsyndrum at Divan Orange
When I think about the proper music to end an evening with, jazz doesn’t usually come to mind. It can be sweaty and messy and riotous, but often it’s just a bunch of old dudes or weird young guys plucking away to a crowd of the equally old and the slightly bored. At their heart, Saxsyndrum are a jazz trio, but they don’t have to worry about lulling anyone to sleep. From that jazzy core, they spin in influences and random components of funk and dub and ambient, creating a sound that pulses with life. It’s elegant and sweeping, but also alien and strange, with sax squawking over the rumble of the drum machine and deep, guttural violin. There’s no denying the band’s passion, with exaggerated movements and red-faced players, but it still maintains a beguiling emotional distance. Bordering the worlds of the organic and the artificial, the sweet spot between classical and progressive, this trio make jazz cool for those who never thought they could ever love jazz. Plus, I have nary a bad word for the pun-tacular name.