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, and visit Tourisme Montreal’s website to learn more about the city.
I talk with Mustapha Terki, founder and general director of Montreal Electronique Groove, outside the bar where he’s busy celebrating the festival’s 15th season. The week-and-a-half-long fest brings in an eclectic lineup of artists from Canada, France, and the United States to play all sorts of venues, from sleek incubator spaces to retail storefronts. At our first MEG event, I’m nodding along to minimal techno. By our third, I’m in the throes of an electroclash moshpit.
Unlike Piknic, MEG scatters itself all throughout the city. Venues branded with the festival’s yellow and black signage fill with a variety of music, but it’s not quite a destination event like SXSW. MEG simmers beneath the regular rhythms of Montreal. It augments the nightlife rather than replacing it. The presence of the fest might not be obvious, but if you know where to head, there’s plenty to see.
Terki’s goal isn’t just to reward festivalgoers with the acts they already love, but to open their horizons to fresh sounds. He’s got good instincts for new music and he’s proud of them. ”Since the beginning of the festival, we’ve booked new talent, new artists. We booked Justice in 2005. We had 60 people in the place but it was crazy,” he tells me. This year, Agoria, Shlohmo, and Alaclair Ensemble are all big names Terki’s happy to drop, but he seems most excited about a French newcomer called Mesparrow, a producer and vocalist who will perform August 1st at Divan Orange. “If someone is curious enough to go there, they’re going to be very surprised,” Terki says.
We spend our first night of MEG at the PHI Centre, a performance/gallery space with high ceilings and black pillars. Projections flicker across a polygonal screen as DJ Van Did twists out a techno set. The air’s quiet, respectful. It almost feels like we’re watching an art installation. People filter in slowly. When Agoria takes his place, the space starts to pack. He trades in Van Did’s minimal squiggles for deep house. People dance.
By the time we get to Casa Del Popolo—the club that’s been namechecked as the CBGBs of Montreal—it’s clear that MEG’s emphasis is less electronic, more groove. Saxsyndrum open the night with an itchy breed of prog-punk that reminds me of the Dead Kenny G’s. The sax player wrangles his bari like the best of them, while the drummer slams his toms standing up. In the middle slot, Sweet Mother Logic stretches the room with droned-out strings and a synth organ. We’re there for headliner Helado Negro, whose set is the most delicate of the three. He doesn’t quite get the back of the room to stop talking, but he rolls with it. “If you can move your lips, you can move your hips,” he says as he launches into one of his Latin-spiked electronic arrangements. Geometric projections twitch on a makeshift screen. At the start of each song, Helado Negro fires off a string of controllers hooked up to a laptop before taking the mic and hovering at the lip of the stage. He sings us into a trance. The music breathes through the room.
Saturday takes us out to the Belmont, a long, dark club that we’ve passed a few times in cabs. We’re early, but it’s already full of artificial fog and red spotlights. A band called Geraldine et Les Narines Lepen climbs up to the stage in wool ski masks; Geraldine’s is orange and has an extra hole for a long braid. She’s an artist in both the visual and performance spheres; tonight, she’s spearheading a whirlwind of Francophone art rock. The band goes from bratty noise punk to leaden drone metal in the space between songs. Geraldine takes a bow to a viola bass, then swats at her amp like she’s paddling through the feedback.
The roadies for Sexy Sushi get special instructions. Before the French trio take the stage, while the club is clogging with people, they build an inverted cross from styrofoam blocks and dress it with baguettes. Soon enough, the trio’s demolishing the structure. They make a jab at Justice. They beat the audience with shards of the blocks.
Sexy Sushi’s vocalist Rebeka Warrior wears blue face paint and a collar of candy necklaces. She crowdsurfs erratically; she pulls my hair back on her way to the floor. On stage, one member of the band operates the electronics while the third is just shirtless in a gimp mask with great tattoos. He doesn’t actually make any music. He does throw bread at people. Both the band and the crowd get rowdier and less clothed as the set goes on. I thread my way into the pit—I can’t help myself. There’s not much that compares with the experience of pulsing with a throng of bodies soaked with everyone else’s sweat.
Terki has been working with Montreal’s music for more than a decade, but he’s still got his thumb on the heart of the community. He’s still surprised by what he gets to see. “Montreal is very audacious,” he says. “Not just in music, but in culture generally. Music, movies…it’s a spirit. And it’s an easy city to live in. When you have a city that is easy to live in, the artists come.” They come—to live here, to play for a night, to stir things up.
Previously on #MTLMoments: Sasha keeps an eye out for the subliminal parts of Montreal’s culture.