It’s a cheap cop-out but true: Montreal is almost impossible to describe. Sure, a few casual images, some links, aren’t beyond the realms of possibility, but distilling a city which boasts such diverse linguistic, cultural, artistic, aesthetic, architectural extremes would be a pretty miraculous trick.
Yet that’s where we find ourselves. Clash attended M For Montreal, a music conference in the city that aims to bring together the varied threads, strands and otherwise from the area’s sprawling music scene. It’s a tough job, but someone had to do it.
First up: Montreal is every bit as cold as you think it is. Yet it’s not a wet cold – not in the flick-knife sharp, North Sea definition. It’s a dry cold, a wearing cold, but at times comforting: it’s there throughout, and impacts upon all areas of life. It’s there in M For Montreal, too. Attempting to walk to an out-of-the-way venue? Get a cab, friend, and spare yourself some serious chills.
But then, perhaps that explains the hardiness, the contrarian nature of the city. Traditionally left wing, language laws in the 80s revoked a rather unjust English heritage in favour of Francophone dominance. Big business flooded out, but in the spaces left behind the city’s artistic scene was granted use of some incredible spaces. Arbitus Records, for example, began life as a collective in a warehouse space, and the imprint’s subtle, playful disregard for the rulebook can no doubt be found in long nights spent re-working a post-industrial environment.
The language barrier, too, seems to impregnate Montreal with a natural ability to re-interpret outside influences as it sees fit. Hip hop collective Dead Obies are a demented, French-language Odd Future, plying a dark aesthetic but one born from unique cultural surroundings. It’s a worthwhile reminder, too, that Arcade Fire stem from the city – and indeed wrote their debut album here.
Held in the cultural quarter of the city, M For Montreal exposes the city’s grid structure, it’s New York-like adoption of mile long roads and complex blocks. Easy to navigate, Montreal’s Museum of Modern Art leads on to the city centre, where the stunning Basilica of Notre Dame nestles beside a historic monument celebrating French settlers’ victory over the Iroquois people.
Beyond this, a museum dedicated to the city lingers by the water front. Historically a harbour city, the port itself is ugly, metallic and intensely industrial. Yet just beyond this on the other side of the river lies Habitat 67: a Brutalist structure, it’s a fantastically Futurist monument, one that is completely distinct. Essentially built using living pods constructed like harbour crates built upon one another, Habitat 67 allows the skyline to beam through in a bizarre, yet striking display of a much maligned aesthetic.
This continually diversity, this ability to soak up a myriad of influences comes across loud and clear during M For Montreal. Stages are not aligned via genre, meaning that pastoral electronics can fade into garage rock, neo-classical composition can give way to surrealistic indie fantasy. It’s a controlled mess, one which seems to thrive on allowing individual talent to flourish.
The Dears’ Murray Lightburn showcases his solo project, one which literally encompasses angels and demons, heaven and hell. Majical Cloudz play not once but twice, with both members becoming fixtures throughout as they supply support to friends, colleagues and admirers.
Indeed, it’s the event’s final night which seems to supply a microcosm of Montreal’s scene as a whole. Majical Cloudz are majestic, angelic, before being followed by Mac DeMarco’s enfant terrible of the slacker sphere display of genitalia, ironic covers and self-effacing material. It’s there in the attitude, the absurd pairing, the awareness between crowd and audience but most of all in the city itself. Next door Laurel Halo is behind the decks, while two blocks away a documentary festival is hosting its final night shindig. Up towards Mile End, the first warehouse party gets under way with an ambitious post-rock set, while a few blocks beyond this a soundsystem is being wired up for a semi-legal (honest, monsieur) rave of sorts.
A thriving aggregation point of languages, culture and ideas, Montreal’s success lies in the acceptance of its own contradictions, its ability to side-step (and then unwittingly define) each trend going. A final word of advice? Bring a scarf.
Words: Robin Murray
Photo Credit: Mahmoud Saati
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Find more information on M For Montreal HERE.