By Shain Shapiro

Three years ago, I boarded the Toronto -> Montreal express train to celebrate a friend's birthday. Armed with a backpack full of La Fin Du Monde (The End of the World) beer, a wooly jumper, and a change of pants, I took my seat quietly on the train and began to wait patiently as it trudged through Eastern Ontario on route to Canada's best city.

Then all hell broke loose.

As the train pulled out of its only stop just north of Toronto, an overweight, visually joyous man noticed the empty seat that my bag was occupying, walked over, and plopped himself down, sandwiching me between the freezing window and an overpowering, fetid scent. Then, after introducing himself as Michel in a bawdy Francophone accent, he called the staff over and proceeded to drain the carriage of beer, two cans at a time. A few hours of drinking later, due to the frozen tracks, which was the excuse we were given by the operator, the train stopped in the middle of nowhere. And then the heat malfunctioned.

So Michel ordered us more beer. And more beer. And more beer. Already three hours late and absolutely hammered from the combination of freezing temperatures and warm beer, Michel, significantly more legless than I, stumbled up out of his seat, dusted off some frost congealing on the side of his mouth from spilt booze, and began to sing in French. He sang loudly and out of tune, and he accented his singing hyperbolically with some interesting dance-like accompaniments. With the rest of the carriage already furious from Michel's bacchanalian behavior and unabashed alcoholism, anarchy ensued. As both staff and guests attempted to either throw Michel off the train or tie him down in order to do so at the next junction, the train suddenly sprang to life, flooded the carriage with heat, and started moving. And Michel kept on singing.

The Arcade Fire
I finally got Michel to quiet down, and a few hours later, the train arrived in Montreal, five hours late. As the passengers departed, Michel took a book out of his bag and proceeded to scribble furiously on the inside cover in French, waiting until the entire train was empty to get off. Then, as if nothing had happened, my evening's jovial entertainer thanked me for the company, gave me the book (a paperback copy of The Shipping News), and disappeared into the desolate, freezing concrete jungle of downtown Montreal. After apologizing to my friends and taking a cab back to their loft, we proceeded to decode Michel's message etched onto the front cover of the book. After a few trips to the dictionary, we discovered that not only was Michel a singer, but he was also a songwriter. The five-minute aria he treated us to was an original and was decoded on the front cover, telling the story of an older man in search of a prostitute before going to visit his son in Quebec City the next day. In addition, the back cover of the book contained about fifty numbers of women, all color-coded to organize and inventory service, price, and quality. What Michel had given me was a guide-book on how to get laid in Montreal because he had already memorized each specific sight and sound. At that point, it hit me. This is one special city.

It is no surprise that the best music in the world is coming from Montreal as of late, including The Arcade Fire, STARS, Wolf Parade, Bell Orchestre, Shalabi Effect, and Besnard Lakes. "This is the greatest city in North America," argue many of its inhabitants. It's a storied, bilingual city where you can get four-star take-out at 5 a.m. and a massive Vermonster at Ben and Jerry's a few hours later. Inhibitions are openly explored nightly on Rue St. Catherines, while the summer boasts top-notch jazz and comedy festivals, just weeks apart. In addition, it can get so cold in the winter that limbs go numb after five minutes of trudging through the snow and so hot in the summer that being outside is equally unbearable. This is a city of intellectuals, idiots, and idiot-savants. A city where you can get a pitcher of beer, a pound of wings, and a lap dance for under $15.

I think if there is any kind of group mind at work here, it is the idea of music for music's sake, without the impetuous notion to 'make it.' No one really has aspirations to rock stardom.
-Hadji Bakara (Wolf Parade)
Wolf Parade (l to r) Dan Boeckner, Spencer Krug, Hadji Bakara, Arlen Thompson

So it is not surprising that it has become Canada's musical epicenter as of late, because it is laden with enough muses and stimulus to generously abet creativity. But how did this happen? When Michel was belting out his aria on the frozen train three years ago, The Arcade Fire was an organizational and musical mess, STARS were virtually unknown, and Wolf Parade was either in school or living in Victoria. In addition, Constellation Records was just past its embryonic stage and Godspeed You! Black Emperor was beginning to unleash its political musical manifesto upon the mainstream. So, why do all these bands embody a somewhat similar musical and creative aesthetic, level of maturity, and passion for experimentation? Is it simply one big coincidence, or is there something about this city that creates Michels in all of us, even if most of the music originated in places like British Columbia or Texas? I have frozen and been burnt to a crisp in Montreal, stumbled drunkenly into a 99-cent falafel place shouting obscenities at 4 a.m., done the obligatory Crescent Street pub crawl, gotten lost in the rhythm of Bongo Park, scurried up Mount Royal on hallucinogens in search of God, and bastardized French in an expensive restaurant in Old Montreal. I have been knocked unconscious, stumbled bravely up Rue University in February, and lost money at the Casino, all in an effort to understand this city. In the process, I've discovered that intrinsically, this place embodies an attitude that differs from any other. While it may not clearly explain why the world has shone its sonic spotlight on Montreal as of late, it lends a few hints. Michel understood and emanated this perfectly, even if his goal was to catalog every prostitute in the city centre. This place is different - very different, and it produces different forms of artistic and creative expression.

Bell Orchestre
I decided to approach some of the musicians currently defining whatever the music media has presented as the Montreal sound in order to investigate if anything about the city is to blame for this harvest of unheralded publicity. Is it just one unexplainable coincidence, or does The Arcade Fire or Wolf Parade, for example, embody something more than coincidental. Montreal has become the new millennium's musical Manchester. I tried to find out why, and as you will see below, I came up with mixed results.

"I do not really think about Montreal as having risen to success, because it has been a great, vibrant place full of good people trying to do good things for a very long time. The fact that a bunch of people have become fans of Montreal bands does not really change anything about the city itself. It is just a good place that has its own rules and values and has not really seemed to be a place where people go to 'make it.' Hopefully, it stays that way. That kind of thing can really ruin a city." -Richard Reed Parry (The Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre)

Wolf Parade
"I am not so sure that The Arcade Fire is similar to Wolf Parade, who is similar to Shalabi Effect and Besnard Lakes. We all play pretty distinct styles of music. Erase the media hype surrounding a perceived 'collectivism,' and you will find some pretty disparate music. That being said, the Anglo ex-pat musician community here is so small and filled with (mostly) great folks, so hanging out and working on one another's respective projects is kind of inevitable. To be able to contribute to something you normally would not play yourself is pretty exciting. I think if there is any kind of group mind at work here, it is the idea of music for music's sake, without the impetuous notion to 'make it.' No one really had/has aspirations to rock stardom." –Hadji Bakara (Wolf Parade)

"We could say something about the importance of bagels here, but the truth is there is nothing going on in Montreal that cannot be said for Canada as a whole. It just happens to be a moment in time where Canadians are making interesting pop music that is not American or British-sounding - and getting attention for it." -Sal Ciolfi (Code Pie)

Shalabi Effect
"Ironically, most bands here are allergic to this kind of hype. Constellation bands (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mount Zion), in particular notoriously hated all of this crap and refused to pander to journalists and majors. Perhaps this made them mysterious and so fueled a mystique based around the so-called Montreal sound, because there was nothing for journalists to write about except for a few really talented people who did what they did because they really wanted to do it, not because it would make them famous. They did not play the game, but played excellent music. So since the bands did not try to create their own hype, the music journalists invented it." – Will Eizlini (Shalabi Effect)

"It has always seemed to me that the goal here is to create something good, exciting, and unique, and not to concern one's self as much with the commerce side of things or on becoming 'successful' - in terms of fame and money. I feel like our community in Montreal shares those similar sentiments and goals." -Richard Reed Parry (The Arcade Fire, Belle Orchestre)

"I do not really think about Montreal as having risen to success, because it has been a great, vibrant place full of good people trying to do good things for a very long time. The fact that a bunch of people have become fans of Montreal bands does not really change anything about the city itself. It is just a good place that has its own rules and values.
-Richard Reed Parry (The Arcade Fire, Belle Orchestre)
Richard Reed Parry by Youngna Park

So all these musicians, who play many different styles of music, agree that in Montreal, art is made for art's sake - a simple, honest point. Still, regardless of the excessive mainstream acclaim, the musicians who have been recording and making music for years still seem generally disenfranchised to contemplate and label a 'Montreal' sound, other than the music and art for music and art's sake argument. I agree with them.

Montreal Street Musician by Dave Brosha
Montreal is as different as different can be when compared to stereotypical North American culture, much like Michel does not symbolize every lascivious middle-aged Francophone. Yet, it gets significantly more complicated than just bringing forth this skin-deep notion of being different, because underneath that general difference boasts a difference in and of itself, or as McLuhan theorized, a medium of difference hidden beneath the message of difference. Difficult to theorize, yes, but remarkably easy to understand. Since so many unique people are producing so many unique forms of artistic expression in Montreal, be it music, art, comedy, sex, food, or language, it is facetious to lump it all into one generalized statement.

Amy Millan :: STARS
The proof is obvious. While Constellation Records, as Eizlini notes, creates music and imagery that is notoriously anti-mainstream, Montreal houses one of the top-rated mainstream electronic music communities in Canada and a fantastic pop festival to showcase such artists. In addition, while The Arcade Fire, STARS, and Wolf Parade have become similar indie-darlings, this has not been achieved ordinarily. Instead, most of these bands simply refused to give into the apocryphal, rock star ethic, opting instead to make varied music, to be patient, and to cram each melody with richness, maturity, and indie ethic. Ironically, that same ethic has been partly responsible for propelling these acts into the mainstream, as they, along with scores of others, have been adding an innate intelligence to '80s and '90s rock sensibilities, which the critics and writers have uniquely labeled 'indie.'

Shalabi Effect
But still, the city one lives in is just as powerful a muse as any other variable in life, so Montreal must have something to do with it, albeit innately, as implied by the musicians. There are few cities in the world that are truly open every minute of every day, regardless of weather or common sense, that can be busier than New York and quieter than Bryce Canyon in the same neighborhood. Every single band discussed here still lives in Montreal, obviously entranced by a city that has everything, from the oldest Catholic Churches in Canada to libidinous louts like Michel, hopping from one whorehouse to the next.

"Here in Montreal, until recently, you could rent an apartment for pennies compared to any other city. Music takes a lot of time and energy that is not spent running around trying to pay the rent. Montreal was cheap, and therefore ideal for artists. It is also a very human city, easy to get around by public transport, walking, and bike. Neighborhoods where musicians live were close by, so living was easy in some ways. In addition, people in this town don't run around for money or success. I mean Montreal's atmosphere is not really conducive to that kind of hyped-up sink-or-swim lifestyle. People take the time to enjoy life here and now. This is very, very good for creativity." -Will Eizlini (Shalabi Effect)

The Arcade Fire
"I do not think we sound like Montreal; I think we sound like Wolf Parade. The sound of Montreal for me is the following: old Portuguese men screaming at televised Euro-Cup soccer, bad French 'world beat' music, Arabic dance music being blasted loudly out of Honda Civics, or the sound of our own brains eating themselves during the five month deep freeze." -Hadji Bakara (Wolf Parade)

"Unless you count the constant summer construction as a musical presence, there is no such thing as a Montreal sound, so we would say that living in Montreal has done little or nothing to affect our attitudes towards our music. It has, however, made it easy for us to get good food late at night, and there is a lot to be said for that. Frankly, that guy that offers Chinese grub for 5 bucks or less on St Laurent Boulevard is just as important to our band as the city itself." -Sal Ciolfi (Code Pie)

"Still, Montreal is my home. It is snowy in the winter and sunny in the summer, and you can live a really nice life there without going out of your mind trying to pay rent." -Richard Reed Parry (The Arcade Fire, Belle Orchestre)

So in summation, I do not think I have uncovered exactly what makes one sound like Montreal, or if such a sound even exists. Instead, I discovered a group of musicians in love with their home and the musical creativity it fosters. So, I guess Montreal sounds like everything, because in actuality, Montreal is everything.

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toestothenose starstarstarstar Fri 10/28/2005 05:52AM
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Shain -

Smashing read! Montreal breeds insane nights and some top notch music.


appleseed Fri 10/28/2005 08:43AM
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How could you leave out Chromeo? It's like Cameo meets Def Leppard circa 1989. Great, great stuff. http://vice-recordings.com/index.php#Anchor-11481

drpiano starstarstar Tue 11/15/2005 01:27PM
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Living in Montreal, the intriguing thing about it is that there isn't just ONE scene, and that everything informs each other. Members of Bell Orchestre and Shalabi Effect are also highly involved in the jazz and musique actuelle scenes here. The Francophone bands and Anglophone bands share influences and sometimes even musicians. The Jazz Fest books klezmer and African music, the African music fest books hip-hop and reggae, the Francophone music festival books Latin music, Divers/Cité books almost anything that grooves and the reggae fest books... reggae.

There isn't a single definable Montreal sound, but more an attitude and approach to the arts. Groups like Moondata and Kalmunity thrive on the sharing of interdisciplinary and interpersonal creativity and passion, as opposed to other cities where scenes and genres are very segmented and never cross over.