It was the most ambitious weekend of Three O’Clock Train’s career. By 1991, the Montreal alt-country band had grown weary of the inequity between the critics’ acclaim and the record industry’s obliviousness. For the better part of a decade they had slugged it out on the local club circuit, creating a reputation for rock-ballad wisdom wrested from equally hard living. All this and still no record deal with a major label, no cross-Canada airplay, no escape from the day jobs.
Singer/songwriter Mack Mackenzie decided to show up the record labels. He and the Train would take over a club for a three-night stand and mount the kind of Springsteen marathon guaranteed to shame the business into recognizing their professionalism and passion. Mackenzie booked the Train into a rock club called the Terminal.
The shows were sold out, the sets memorable: proud and full-blooded, with a dramatic arc peaking in the epic climax of a ballad called “Muscle In.” This was major rock ’n’ roll. For three nights, the underdogs held sway. Then Mackenzie and the Train accepted their justly won congratulations, swept up the broken glass and waited for the offers to pour in.
Nothing happened. Despite word of mouth all over the city, the record industry never came calling because it had already moved to Toronto. Three O’Clock Train pulled into the Terminal and never really pulled out. Same old, same old.
Flash forward to the new story. It is summer 2003 and Montreal songwriter Sam Roberts is in the Pistol bar on St. Laurent Blvd. talking about his latest opening slot. Roberts is a relative newcomer, with a debut album called The Inhuman Condition. Nevertheless, he’s getting around. He was the first act on the bill at the Toronto SARS benefit concert starring AC/DC and the Rolling Stones.
Roberts played warm-up for a crowd of almost 450,000. Nervous? “No, you can only really see the first 40,000,” he cracks. Smart and self-deprecating, he holds court all evening surrounded by friends, fans, journalists and members of the Radiohead support crew (the band was in town that night). Perhaps it is the shot of exoticism he gets from his South African parentage, maybe it’s the long hair and pop-Jesus beard, or the approachability, but Roberts has cachet. He also has the air of a man who knows he belongs in the room. It could all be easily dismissed as a fluke if Roberts were the only one.
But no, he’s not. Montreal’s rock scene has never lacked for talent, but never has it matched the critical and commercial potential of the current roster. And that roster is a varied one.
Start with the strangest and therefore most “Montreal” band, Godspeed You! Black Emperor—a post-rock nonet described as “reclusive, mysterious and highly political.” Had they existed in the time of the Train, that quotation would have come from local alternative weekly the Montreal Mirror; this time it comes from The Guardian in London. Godspeed is the least conventional of the new millennium bands, but it is hardly alone in the theatre of acclaim.
Poperatic balladeer Rufus Wainwright is the obvious success story with the impeccable bloodline—dad is Loudon Wainwright III, mom is Kate McGarrigle. The Dears are rightly self-described as “orchestral pop noir romantique.” They recently played on a Wainwright bill in New York sponsored by the Canadian consulate. Label them Montreal’s answer to the Smiths and they probably wouldn’t litigate. The tight mod-garage rock of the High Dials shares airplay with the Strokes, the Hives and the White Stripes on Underground Garage, a radio show run by Little Steven (Steve Van Zandt of Springsteen and Sopranos fame).
Bionic (slogan: “Total Fucking Rock”) took their concussive guitars from clubland oblivion to an opening slot for KISS at the Molson Centre. They recently won the Galaxie Prize ($1,000) for best band at the Pop Montreal festival and, with some lucky airplay, could challenge or displace hard rock bands like the Queens of the Stone Age.
Likewise Moonraker, a band of francophones singing in English, won a radio-station battle of the bands and has parlayed it into a shot at fame in Toronto. And all roads currently lead to the Stills, a Lachine quartet who scored a top-forty hit on the UK indie charts barely fifteen months into their existence. Sample lyric: “I’m not that angry/ You’re just not that cool.”
Stills drummer Dave Hamelin is on tour in Chicago when I reach him. He is twenty-three, outspoken and openly disdainful of the old never-say-try attitude of Montreal bands. “We don’t give a shit about any of those limitations, because they are what keep Montreal unto itself. People become cynical about success. It’s a convenient out. It’s way easier to say, ‘That’s not cool. I’m from Montreal, I’m [just] gonna make it in my own town.’”
There was a time when even that was difficult. In the days when Three O’Clock Train and Jerry Jerry were struggling to pay their embarrassingly low Montreal rents, the Toronto and West Coast indie scenes sent into the mainstream Rough Trade, Blue Rodeo, the Parachute Club, the Barenaked Ladies, Jane Siberry, the Crash Test Dummies and the Tragically Hip—and that’s just a rough sampling. Each of those bands had a perfectly good—in some cases better—Montreal version sullenly downing cheap pitchers of draft beer.
The High Dials
Some observers have gone as far as blaming the Parti Québécois for the Montreal scene’s failure to thrive in the eighties and nineties. While it would be good fun to nail Jacques Parizeau and his separatist colleagues for the Doughboys’ breakup, even his infamous “money and the ethnic vote” slur has a limit to its evil powers.
More fingers are pointed at the record industry, which during that time period moved all of its head offices away from Montreal to Toronto. We can jeer at the business, at its cynicism and its tin ears, and blame politics for its exodus, but how does this explain the current wave of talent? After all, the head offices aren’t moving back. No, somewhere along the line, there had to be some complicity from the bands.
On St. Laurent Blvd., there is a legendary rock dive called the Biftek. On any given night over the past twenty years, you could step around (or over) more grumbling musicians here than in all the rehearsal spaces in the city. Think of it as ground zero, in two senses.
Some of the bands were too weird to succeed (like perverse post-punkers American Devices), others too lazy, too neurotic or too habitually drunk at their own concerts to raise their careers to the next level. Those last three character flaws were reactive, a complex of learned helplessness brought on by the blanket neglect of the record industry. And so in place of conventional success, Montreal bands became famous for their rock ’n’ roll qualities.
Live shows by the Nils, the Asexuals, Jerry Jerry and the Sons of Rhythm, the Doughboys, the Ripcordz and the American Devices could be chaotic affairs, and the punk fuck-you attitude sold tickets across Canada. A guitarist too junk-fried to make the gig, a singer who drunkenly baits his fans, a front man in a dress who prepares for a set by filming his masturbation in the bathroom, a band whose reputation incites a brawl before the amps are plugged in—you can’t buy better noir rock ’n’ roll credibility. These bands flew the flag of self-sabotage. It was gloriously disdainful. It simply could never translate into breakthrough record sales. You could take them anywhere, but you couldn’t dress them up.
They were succeeded by more successful groups—Me Mom & Morgentaler and Bootsauce staged successful tours, made MuchMusic video rotation and still have fans years after breaking up. However, these bands fell victim to the most corrosive projection of the learned helplessness complex: they were deeply resented by other frustrated groups in their midst. This type of backbiting is as endemic to a rock scene as dope-smoking and pogey cheques. But size matters. Montreal’s anglo rock base was too small to permit its own citizens to poormouth one another.
That may be the first difference between then and now.
Murray Lightburn of the Dears says, “I’m always big-upping bands from back home.” He is calling from New Brunswick, where the band is on tour. (Every band I spoke to was on the road.) Like all the current bands, the Dears are driven to export themselves beyond Montreal’s claustrophiliac anglo rock scene, and not in the old death-drive-to-nowhere sense of twenty-six-hour trips between gigs. For the Dears, the romance is in the music and not the process.
Talent is luck. Diligence is not. Having seen both band generations, I would say the new ones have a global talent, and I don’t mean geography: along with creativity, they have fully functioning departments of administration, inventory, shipping and even the dread marketing. They have made the mundane and necessary realization that talent brings no divine right to success.
Mike Webber’s Snitches are the band that bridges the generations—old school in their onstage intensity, new school in their practical approach.
“Rock ’n’ roll is funny,” Webber says. “In the old days there was so much more money in it, and small labels would sign people. Of course they would do fuck-all with them . . .”
But the artist never filled that gap—the artist never assumed responsibility for his career. “People used to get a manager and say, ‘Look after me. I’m an artist.’ But they’re much more savvy now. They know you have to do it on your own.” To that end, the band licensed its most recent single, “Right Before My Eyes,” to Molson Dry, putting the proceeds toward recording costs for the next album.
Lightburn agrees. “I think maybe the new generation is really driven artistically and, in another sense, business-wise. The biggest problem is putting the word ‘business’ after the word ‘music.’ We’ve been through the industry ringer several times over. But after a while you start to zen that shit out.”
Godspeed, for instance, is a self-made band, rigorously avoiding the conventional rock conduits—major labels, major record stores, major media—and yet, they are major. Their shows are sellouts from New York to London. With perfect consistency, their most expansive gesture toward the mainstream was the licensing of one song, “East Hastings,” to filmmaker Danny Boyle for use in 28 Days Later. The film is a post-apocalyptic zombie horror story.
Some still feel that describes the Montreal music industry. Moonraker, the franco-anglo band, left Montreal for Toronto. The Stills did them one better and actually formed in New York.
“If we had started this band in Montreal, we would have given up in a month,” Dave Hamelin says. He still finds in Montreal a fatal lack of excitement for new groups. Whereas response in New York has been “really, really astonishing, which we did not expect at all. How could we have?”
Well, he could have noted the glamour of his own zeal. The band’s four-song EP Rememberese had magazines from NME to Rolling Stone buzzing and new fans in urban pockets everywhere waiting eagerly for the full-length debut, Logic Will Break Your Heart (released October 21). Their inspirations for that one: Fleetwood Mac, Radiohead, French techno duo Air and the Beatles: specifically, “everything after Rubber Soul.” Hamelin concedes that his band’s “ambition comes with the territory and we’ve been placed in a position that some of those previous bands never were. We’ve been extremely lucky. I mean, compare us to Me Mom & Morgentaler.”
Okay. The Montreal ska-pop collective ruled the city’s live scene in the early nineties with a concept right out of a multiculturalist’s prospectus. Multi-ethnic, multilingual, leftist, bi-gendered and yappingly enthusiastic, the Morgentalers never affected the jaded cool of a rock band. They barnstormed audiences, tried to flout the industry, and may have paid for it by stalling in their artistic development.
Or perhaps there is an unseen, fateful plan to all this. After the Morgentalers aborted (sorry) as a group, members Gus Coriandoli and Adam “Bix” Berger moved to New York where, frustrated by the ruthless caprice of a real music business, they eventually moved into band management and production, taking under their wings a young band they had met one night in the Biftek: the Stills. Hamelin again: “We’ve had so many more opportunities because Gus and Bix moved to New York and did things the hard way. So they knew what not to do.”
Networking, mentoring—two healthy elements in any relationship. These are bands. They are prospering. This is good. But is this a scene?
“The scene is very disjointed,” says Webber. “In effect, there is no scene. I mean, there’s always a scene with new bands because of the need for alliances in the early days of a band. You need one another’s fans to come to one another’s shows.”
Now, there is some polarization. And this is good. Rather than hang on one another for support, these bands are becoming sufficiently established to embrace the great Montreal theme: diversity. In the eighties, the bands’ dissimilarity was seen as a deficit—audiences could never get a fix on “the Montreal sound.” Now, this is an attribute.
“Some places you go and all the bands sound the same,” says the Dears’ Lightburn. This is the conventional definition of a scene, where one style holds sway and imitation is the sincerest form of careerism. “But you could never picture the High Dials, the Dears and Godspeed on the same bill. Probably be fistfights.”
He catches himself.
“In the crowd, I mean.”