For the next two and a half weeks, Consequence of Sound’s Sasha Geffen will be exploring Montreal and its music scene, attending the mammoth three-day music festival Osheaga (featuring The Cure, Beck, New Order, Vampire Weekend and many more), and taking in the local culture. Follow her adventures here, or through the hashtag #MTLMoments on Instagram and Twitter.
“There’s something in the air here,” says Mikey Rishwain Bernard, programming director of M for Montréal: the showcase series that’s been instrumental in broadcasting the city’s most influential bands to the rest of the world since its inception in 2006. We feel it too as we sit on the roof of the Société des Arts Technologiques, listening to the music of local band Camp filter out from the stage. We’re here to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Cult MTL, a new print and web publication focused on the city’s evolving alt-culture.
A California ex-pat, Bernard was drawn, like other young creatives, to the energy that emanates from Quebec’s biggest city. He compares Montréal to Seattle in its ’90s heyday, full of the kind of artistry that spills frictionlessly across North America and the rest of the globe. Bands like Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Arcade Fire, and Broken Social Scene spurred the surge of millennial indie rock that gripped hold of so many cities. Now, Montréal’s enjoying its second wave of innovators, with artists like Grimes, Majical Cloudz, and Half Moon Run carving out a new decade of music.
So what makes the city tick? Low rent, thriving DIY venues, and a university culture all help to catalyze the kind of music that’s too good to stay in one place, but there’s more to Montréal’s unique output. Our tour guide IsmaÃ«l calls it light.
We walk through the city’s entertainment district, a sunny stretch of blocks full of modern cultural centers and open public spaces. The area is being transformed for the Just for Laughs comedy festival, whose impish green mascot grins from the sides of dormant, temporary performance venues. Tourists and locals cluster in the square, taking photos, chatting, and sampling local businesses.
At night, IsmaÃ«l explains, the buildings in the district shine red lights down on the sidewalk, “to show that there’s culture inside.” Projections beam onto the facades of performance halls to announce upcoming events or to honor Canada’s most respected performers. On his iPad, IsmaÃ«l shows us a photo of a building at night lit up with portraits of jazz musicians—and Leonard Cohen.
Inside the ThéÃ¢tre du Nouveau Monde, we touch on the city’s history of deviancy during the Prohibition era. A culture of sex work and alcohol consumption lurks in the area’s legacy. The venue, once known as the Gayety Theatre, was a vaudeville house where the American burlesque stripper Lili St. Cyr made her name as the “most famous woman in Montréal.” When the city attempted to regulate her act, St. Cyr only inverted it. A law requiring performers to leave the stage clothed inspired her to start her performance naked, then slowly cover up as she danced.
The sex shows here (“sexothéque”, I see written in pink neon) might be standard fare now, but that sense of play—the ability to flip the rules to one’s advantage—lingers. After our tour, we congratulate Cult MTL’s editor in chief Lorraine Carpenter on the monthly’s first birthday. As newspapers and alt-weeklies gut their staff and shut their doors across the United States, Carpenter is eagerly navigating the 21st century’s media landscape. The publication’s still young, she says, and there’s certainly a learning curve as the staff figures out what content belongs on the web and what belongs in print. But it’s growing. The people of Montréal are reading.
The walking tour ends in Place Ã‰melie Gamelin, a public park where people play chess on giant boards. This is where the homeless sleep, IsmaÃ«l tells us, and where students mingle. It’s the first time I can remember a city rep mentioning anyone homeless—the first time I can think of a tourism worker acknowledging the poor as locals. Maybe that’s what he means by light: a willingness to illuminate aspects of Montréal that don’t necessarily fit into the city’s idealized imagining of itself.
In the evening, we head to Théatre de Verdure in Lafontaine Park to catch experimental act Timber Timbre. The park is dim and the band keeps it that way, lit only by a moody darkroom red. I don’t feel the itch that tends to hang around outdoor concerts in the States. The performers and the audience don’t have much to prove to each other. No one is competing for volume. There’s just the give and take, a low, calm light, an image of a city content in its own creation. It’s a good glow to see.
Previously on #MTLMoments: An introduction to Sasha’s travels and the story ahead.