Montreal wants you to know how cool it is. Which is cool. Because Montreal IS cool. And I should know; I was just there for nearly three weeks.
As part of its #MTLMoments campaign launched by the forward-thinking Tourisme Montréal, I spent 18 days in the hip, bilingual city of Montreal, Quebec, Canada, exploring the city’s incredible music scene, nightlife, culture and festivals… including the epic Osheaga – perhaps Canada’s biggest and best music festival.
My cohort was Sasha Geffen from Consequence of Sound, and our task was simple: go out every day and night, talk to the locals, hang out with bands, meet festival organizers and get to know the city. It was an incredible opportunity. In Montreal in the summer, you simply cannot move for stuff to do. And not just any stuff, MUSIC stuff. Here’s a Top 10 of my favourite #MTLMoments.
10. Shopping for Records
Montreal is filled with an inordinately sexy amount of vinyl shops. Every time we mentioned that we were going record shopping, someone would chime in with “oh, did you visit….?” and each time have a different recommendation. We made it to five, each with their own personalities. In Montreal’s cool musician-rife neighbourhood Mile End, Phonopolis was a small, low-lit vinyl emporium with odds n’ sods, while Sonorama, across the street, was new and spacious and loved its alternative and Britpop. Cheap Thrills (pictured, and my fave) was wedged between office buildings downtown. Climb a purple staircase to its half-record-shop-half-used-book-store-delights. Beatnick on St. Denis had a massive, lovingly organized collection of…well, everything, while Atom Heart – the geekiest place of them all – had a small collection of weird electronica, rare grunge and other strange delicacies. I bought so much vinyl at each (including a numbered, blue Kurt Vile, Depeche Mode and Flock of Seagulls picture discs, a 180-gram re-release of Blur’s Leisure and others), that I actually had to ship it all back home.
9. Dancing to Dear Denizen
We had no idea what to expect from this local electronarock outfit Dear Denizen when we went to check them out at Divan Orange, a rad little venue on St. Laurent. It wasn’t so much the music that was so compelling – though it was strong, catchy, and kind of reminded me of very early days Tragically Hip only with keyboards. Weird, I know. It was Chris Ngabonziza, their singer. Songs pushed out from his body frantically, he shadow-boxed the lyrics, threw down his cap and had us all dancing. Plus, we ran into two people we’d already met earlier in our trip that night, proving that Montreal’s English music scene is its own little tight community unto itself.
8. Eating a whole lot of bagels
I know what you’re thinking: BAGELS ARE NOT MUSIC. But sliced them in half and squint, you could pretend they’re records. No? Nevermind, Montreal bagels are some of the most rock n’ roll things the city has to offer (next to the actual rock n’ roll and the best drunk food ever: poutine.) There are basically two bagel makers (St. Viateur and Fairmount) squaring off in a war to be the city’s best. Montreal bagels are SO famous (and soft and unctuous and sweet and unlike any cardboard bagel you’ve ever had) that I had emails from Diamond Rings telling me his choice (St-V), tweets from Wintersleep telling me their choice (Fairmount) and local bands and regular folks weighing in. We tried both. Sorry Fairmont, we chose St-V, but it won only by the tiniest poppy seed. But both are ridiculously awesome. In fact, we fell for MTL bagels so hard, we did this the night before we left. At MIDNIGHT.
7. Checking out the Tam-Tams
You feel it in your belly as soon as you hop off the bus at a spot “near the statue” at Mont Royal. A rumbling, drumming sound from the “Tam-Tams“, a weekly enormous drum circle event that happens each Sunday from noon until sunset. Stoners, hippies, muscled, sweaty athletes, families, old people, kids, dancers every shade and shape imaginable gather with drums or percussive instruments (basically whatever you can hit) and the music rings out across the park. Dancers jump around, whistles blow, in the distance someone inevitably plays (or sells) hacky sack. Through the trees, LARPers and – no kidding – tightrope walkers practice. It was a great display of a community united over music and movement. And a great way to spend a few hours on a sunny Sunday.
5. Sunshine vibes at Piknic Eléctronik
What do you get when you throw a rave under an amazing statue in Parc Jean-Drapeau in the sunshine? Happiness. Piknic Eléctronik is a long-time Montreal institution that happens every Sunday in the summer and features local, national and international DJs playing electronica on two stages (one hidden in the park near the water, so you dance happily on grass). People of all ages – it’s perfect for folks with kids who can’t stay out late at clubs or kids who can’t get into them – dance and hang out all afternoon. Booze and food trucks are available, and it’s an incredible vibe. The best part? It’s all over by 9ish. We had a tremendous day with the Piknic crew one weekend, had a dance and met some great people.
5. Being Hit Over the Head with Styrofoam by Sexy Sushi
We’d just spent a couple of nights checking out electronica and grooves by DJs and performers as part of the 15-year-old MEG (Montreal Electronic Groove) Festival and it had been pretty chill. That is until we got to the Belmont and saw a Francophone art-punk band band wearing balaclavas and bowing their guitars. But nothing quite prepared us for what came after: the baguette-wielding, styrofoam-crosso-slinging, monster-mask-and-skirt-wearing Gimp, keyboardist and punk siren Rebeka Warrior – collectively known as the Parisian band Sexy Sushi. Sasha hit the moshpit, I hung by the back to protect my camera after I’d been coddled by Rebeka and bashed in the head with a piece of foam. Next thing I know, Rebeka’s standing next to me, on a table, topless, then goes crowd surfing back to the stage. Electroclash craziness, and an intensely enjoyable night. (Which we topped off by visiting La Banquise – a 24hr poutinery- for our 2am dose of fries, gravy and cheddar cheese curds.)
4. Hanging out with KISS in the hotel bar
I’d just seen and interviewed them two weeks’ earlier in Vancouver but we were stoooooked to be able to see KISS again at Montreal’s massive arena, the Bell Centre. I also got a lot more stoked when I got into the hotel elevator and found myself standing next to Shannon Tweed – Gene Simmons’ wife. Putting 19+78 together, I realized that the band must surely be staying at the posh Loews Hotel Vogue with us. After the gig (Pyro! Fake blood! Fake Ace and Fake Peter rising into the ceiling! Paul flying through the air! Rockhands!), Sasha and I decided to grab a cocktail in the small hotel bar and were the only patrons there. Next thing we know, in walks Fake Ace (Tommy Thayer) and Fake Peter (Eric Singer) out of make up, with a few others of the crew to sit down and have some drinks and burgers. In also walks a makeup-less Real Paul Stanley who sat chatting behind us. We drank a few, checked out the intimate and very un-rock-n-roll-all-nite scene, then went to have a chat with Real Paul and Fake Peter as we left. “Did you enjoy the show?” Stanley asked. “Oh yeah,” I said. “I saw you two weeks ago as well.” “Wow.” The next morning, we completed the set: I ran into Gene Simmons in the lobby.
3. Seeing Mistaken for Strangers and meeting Tom Berninger
The National are one of my favourite bands. And their singer, Matt Berninger, is one of my favourite spirit animals. And this guy, in the picture, is now one of my favourite filmmakers. This is Tom Berninger, Matt’s brother, who made a film that was sort of supposed to be about the being on tour with band, but ended up being a hilarious, bittersweet, clever and wonderful documentary about what it’s like to be Brother #2. Mistaken for Strangers (a ref to both a National song and their relationship) is a brother film, it’s a music film, it’s a film for people who don’t know or care about the National. And it was a pleasure to see its Quebec premiere at the very cool Fantasia International Film Festival (we also took in a series of horror/black comedy/weird shorts the week before as part of the same festival.) ”What? You like KISS AND the National? Weird! You’re like me!…also…you guys are SO nice” said Tom, who was in attendance at the premiere, to us afterward.
2. Hanging out at Kid Koala’s studio
Eric San, aka Kid Koala, is not only one of the most well-connected artists in Montreal (yeah, even more so than Arcade Fire’s Win Butler whom he casually texted over our lunch of dumplings and noodles), he’s also one of the nicest guys in music. A turntable legend, a DJ, a rock band member, and author and and illustrator of a graphic novel, a planner of all things. San’s got so many projects on the go that some have lay in wait for nearly 10 years. During lunch he discussed how Montreal as a city encourages and nurtures artists, casually drops in the fact that he popped in to “do some work on the new Arcade Fire album” and that his studio is the place where actor “Michael Cera gets finds his bass groove.” (San also contributed to the film Scott Pilgrim that Cera stars in.) Brimming with decks, a stand-up bass, guitars, mixing boards, records, strange little yellow robots,giant yetis, a vending machine that spits out his cassettes, puppets, dioramas, his favourite bit of gear – the Assmann 640 – and more, the studio is home to decades of San’s creativity. After poking around there, he then drove us home, but first we had to stop by his office. He wanted to load us up with merch – books, CDs whose covers turn into real working mini gramaphones, oven mitts, t-shirts and even perfume that a local perfumer made to accompany his music. Kid Koala, like Montreal, values experimentation and creativity and shared it so willingly. Do you know who your city’s real musical ambassadors are?
1. Osheaga and The Cure
Over three days at the tail end of our trip, I got to see the Cure for the 10th time, New Order and Beck for the first, Hot Chip and Alt-J both for the four time in four cities in a year, and Breeders and Phoenix for the second time in 2 cities in a year. I danced on stage with and hugged Tricky, caught up with a drunken pair of Palma Violets, reminded myself of how much Bob Mould and his band rock, ran into Alt-J in the lobby of our hotel, saw Big Boi’s tour bus, sampled pop and soul that I wouldn’t normally touch (hello Icona Pop and Jessie Ware), hooked up with my Manhattan band friends Guards, ran into people we’d met over the past two weeks in the city, hung out with two friends I knew from Vancouver, and shot all the shows I wanted from the photo pit.
I got to eat vegetarian chicken wings, lobster rolls, amazing pulled pork poutine and have beignets (donut balls) with chocolate and bacon. I ate free candy in the VIP section, splashed mud all over my rubber trainers and laughed a lot with Sasha. Check out Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3 reports for all the photos and fun.
To have such an incredible experience – a chance to really get to know a city, its people and its music vibe – end with Osheaga was a beyond perfect way to wrap up all of our incredible #MTLMoments.
I’ve also just learned that St.-Viateur Bagels delivers in Canada. Pray for my credit card. \m/
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