Despite the learned advice of Tourisme Montreal’s Hugo Leclerc, the loveliest tour guide you could ever need, I failed at Montréal public transport, spending 4 consecutive nights taking the same epic walk of shame from Église POP – an uptown top ranking Church basement, scene of the best late night gigs of POP Montréal – back to my boutique hotel deep in the downtown red light district.
I zigzagged drunkenly, passing through the history of the city, doing the time warp again and again across the overlapping vanguards of immigrants that make up the rich crêpe mix of the boulevards, whisked relentlessly by the hands of time.
Each night, I crossed the Portuguese, Latin, Italian and Jewish quarters, finally washing up at the MSG-scented shores of Chinatown. Along the way I met hobos who called me “bobo” (Montréaler for hipster), avant-garde gypsies, Hassidic Jews, and Quebecoise queers; the young, the old, and the ageless.
It’s a virtual city-state, inside a wannabe republic (Quebec), inside a constitutional monarchy (Canada). This tetchy French-Canadian version of a Russian Doll speaks the zeitgeist in simultaneous French and English like it’s possessed. You’re either a Francophone or Anglophone here, depending on your Euro fetish, but perhaps pop is the universal language. A former Sin City, Montréal is now an epicentre of alternative culture, home to international hipster heavyweights Grimes, Arcade Fire, Chromeo and The Dears. POP Montréal is the perfect matchmaker for a speed-date with this scene.
Outside Église POP one night, I meet Neil, a blonde surfer dude in a Beetlejuice suit, who amazingly turns out to be the same dancer I saw flanking Grimes at her Manchester gig last summer. Here he’s doing some sort of intricate improv mime for one-man rave Dresden Dresses, alongside a girl dressed as Vogue-era Madonna. I smile to myself as a Grimes lookalike (one of many) gushes to him about his suit after the show. As befits a collaborative scene, Neil is pals with POP performers d’Eon and Majical Cloudz, while fellow dancer Caila is singer in Mozart’s Sister, who join DIANA and TOPS at the head of the country’s Progressive Female Pop revival. This dreamy feminisation of the pop canon is one of the most exciting events in music culture right now. Music rarely causes a physical reaction like it should, but my 0.5 crew cut stood up twice during the festival, the first and highest time for DIANA. Their live show conjures the schizoid pop delirium of Stay by Shakespeare’s Sister, but I can only really describe it by saying that’s it’s incredible for the same reason Manhunter is infinitely better than Silence of the Lambs.
The second hair-raiser was SUUNS, an experience Pop Montréal maestro Sarah Shoucri describes as “like being on prescription drugs.” I was so stupefied afterwards that when she asked me what I thought, I could unfortunately only mutter in a Tao Lin kind of way “…boring, like the most boring thing…” What I meant was that exquisite ennui you feel when a fever has packed your skull with cotton wool. Heidegger said pathological boredom is the feeling of attuning to your body – the undiluted human condition. SUUNS made me feel that unbearable lightness of being, as I swirled in the tarry wake of the beat, propelled by the terrifying threats of their psycho killer singer.
The festival and the city embody the App-ification of history, as our online timeline is shunted from one-thing-after-another to a simultaneous experience. As ethereal Montréaler and Grimes collaborator Chris d’Eon puts it, “Time and the human canon have become radial; we can access everything at the same time, so we can reference it all.” POP Montréal is perfectly choreographed to showcase this clusterfuck of confluences. In it, we can time travel like there’s no tomorrow, or yesterday. d’Eon’s new project is a survey of the last 400 years of dance music with NYC artist Cory Arcangel. It’s a project I’m renaming Now That’s What I Call Music 1600-2000.
“Unifying trends are comforting – to know that someone will like this if it’s in style,” d’Eon argues, “but if everything’s in style, it’s like fuck! Lo-fi is really popular, but hi-fi is really popular too, and rock’s really popular, but electronic is really popular and classical music is too.” “Everything’s coming up now,” adds Cory. “What a great time to be alive.”
Their POP Montréal performance is a joint venture in many ways; written by two people, it meshes masculine, minimal influences with feminine flourishes. “The transvestite knight Chevalier d’Eon is one of my possible ancestors,” Chris tells me, laughing. ”He was the first historically recorded transgendered person. I feel a lot of affinity for both sexes. It’s ridiculous for men and women to be disrespecting each other like they do in this world. Music is a good way to bring out both genders in a way that people aren’t comfortable behaving in their everyday life.” I’d agree with that. One of the weirdest experiences I had at POP was watching a room full of baggy-jeaned b-boys sing along to the slightly camp slow jams of The-Dream. R’n’B is a Trojan Horse genre that allows men to put on their girlfriend’s bling and indulge in melodramatic melodies. Enjoying music is often an armistice between your most disparate parts.
“I’m a Libra, I’m right wing, I‘m left wing,” Chris adds, “I like beautiful classical music and like harsh industrial noise.” But the most startling innovation to me is their merch: you can buy the sheet music at the performance, and play it yourself at home. This is the most selfless relinquishing of creative control I’ve seen for a long time.
“We’re this generation where you’re always in control of your music,” says Cory, “so it’s just wild to use this older system. Having someone else play it is the paradigm for classical piano music. It’s also like piano house when they applaud the DJ.” While Cory writes half of the score, Chris is the solo performer. “It’s such a weird experience,” he admits, “It’s like having someone babysit your children.” In the set, Korg M1 Manchester piano house anthems segue seamlessly into harpsichordal baroque instrumentals. d’Eon puts it in context: “Dance music in classical music has been around for ages. But it’s probably a first in art music to use these rhythms in modern keyboard music.”
It’s the online omnipresence of unrelated genres and eras that allows for such chance configurations and unforeseen collaborations. Cory describes a typically C21st process of researching his future collaborator: “That’s how you find out about people right now, you check SoundCloud and Spotify and you Google them, and you kind of piece them together.” You form new relationships from virtual fragments. What’s next? “I wanna do an opera. I’ve been massively influenced by them, but I’ve never made one,” says d’Eon. “God yeah!” agrees Cory Arcangel with genuine excitement. I feel like a matchmaker. You heard it here first.
Our changing music-sharing habits are also responsible for one of the festival’s biggest coups. Co-founder Dan asked 64 year-old funk legend Pierre Perpall to perform after hearing him on the 2009 DJ Kicks mixtape by Montreal’s italo-disco revivalists Chromeo. Pierre didn’t realise he was back in demand until his wife made him clear out his old vinyl from the basement, and he put it on eBay. Records by his awesomely-named space funk band Pluton and the Humanoids sold for $800! “I called the band that because I loved Giorgio Moroder,” he tells me in-between soundchecking, “I wanted to do an electronic song from outer space, with vocoder voices – humanoids talking to each other on the record, “Watch out, we are watching!”…I found out the song was a masterpiece for people in Europe,” he tells me excitedly, “on account of the way I built it like a symphony, with different movements and a prelude, even though it’s a pop record. It was totally different.”
Pierre is superfit and superfriendly. “I started entertaining before Michael Jackson and Prince, but I wasn’t known worldwide. I don’t dance like Jackson or like James Brown, I dance like me. I started dancing so young that I formed my own style. Now dancers want to learn my steps, it’s very flattering.” The quaint, endearing word he keeps using is “flabbergasted,” which sums up his buoyant, clean-living persona. He’s twice my age, rollerblades 5 days a week, and could easily beat me in a race. “My main idol was James Brown, everyone wanted to be him. It was known in those days that black artists were lazy and black people were lazy, so he was trying to break that myth. He was always saying: “Be clean on stage, be organized and you’ll have a nice career.” So I took those tips very seriously; the band had to be on cue, I was very severe with those guys.”
Pierre Perpall’s feverishly tight gig in the basement of L’Église POP elicits extreme responses. One reverse-capped hipster stands like a statue, unable to compute what he’s seeing, while everyone else parties wildly around him. Is it ironic? Is it knowingly pre-ironic? At one point, the Sideshow Bob lookalike singer of support band Fabricville (whose cover of Huey Lewis’ The Power of Love is incredible) turns to me with wide eyes and shouts; “This is terrible, this is derivative and formulaic. THIS IS FUCKING AWESOME!!” Montréal has just rediscovered a lost idol, the first black French singer/entertainer in Quebec. “With conventional radio you have a hit song for 3 months,” Pierre tells me, “But with the internet, there’s no time limit; by the time one interest dies, someone else discovers you somewhere else…” With more energy than most young bands, may his revival never end.
POP Montréal is run on Montréal time and in Montréal space; that is, unhurried, expansive, and dripping with possibility. While the rest of the world runs a red-eyed relay race with takeaway coffee cup batons, Montréalers are permanently at brunch, savouring the café au lait and maple syrup-drenched doorstop-thick crêpes that power the city. This city is so cool its government has a Department of Fashion. I spend way too much time in Eva B., the massive thrift store near my hotel. Celebrating its 30th year, you’re given a shot of homemade lemonade as you enter, before filling a bag for $5 on a free-for-all floor where precociously trendy schoolgirls loll and LOL and rate boys out of 10. Just around the corner is Quartier des Spectacles, where I chance upon Les Installations Mouvantes, a troupe of sickeningly beautiful French/Gypsy dancers who perform avant-garde improvisations with books and street furniture, accompanied by a solo accordion player.
Montréal culture is ever-present and effervescent, and the music scene is ridiculously healthy. POP Montréal 2013 hosted 4 bands longlisted for this year’s Polaris Prize, Canada’s Mercury equivalent: Kid Koala (whose indulgent/healthy culinary bike tour is the best way to explore the city), Majical Cloudz, SUUNS, and closing act Metz. There were too many bands, films, and art shows to see, and too many I did see to mention. This is not a criticism. I’m still discovering bands that the feisty, phenomenal Sarah Shoucri and her sleepless team of POP staffers suggested. I hope they have me back next year because Montréal is my new favourite city, and I have so much more to learn.
Group hug to Sarah Shoucri of POP Montréal, and Hugo Leclerc & Ruby Roy of Tourisme Montréal.
For future POP Montreal lineup information see www.popmontreal.com.
words Vienna Famous