Tuesday 27 September (Day Before the Festival)
I’ll just say it.
Pop Montreal is the best music festival in Canada.
You don’t have to be a complete indie-rock nerd to know that Montreal is the place to be for up-and-coming rock bands. Which is why this year’s Pop Montreal festival may be the perfect venue for my newest musical project Timber to make some noise and actually be heard.
Our record label Ships at Night has been given its own showcase on Friday night at O Patro Vys, a Pop-participating bar at the north end of Montreal’s now infamous Plateau neighbourhood. Sanctioned by the festival’s head honcho Dan Seligman, this show is a generous gift for three fairly unknown Montreal bands. But with so many other great acts coming to town, and so many good shows scheduled simultaneously in different bars and venues across the city, there simply may not be room for us underdogs.
Either way, for the next week, I am going to be all caught up in this Pop Montreal mob—playing, laughing, crying, and drinking myself silly on and off the stage.
Wednesday 28 September (Day One)
It’s 10 PM and I’m nervously sipping beer with my bandmates Warren Spicer and Matthew Woodley at our beloved rehearsal space, the Treatment Room. We’re in Montreal’s newest musical hotbed, Mile End, just north of the Plateau. What’s with the jitters? Well, it’s been weeks since we last practised and our bassist Katie Moore is over an hour late. Normally, this would be no biggy, but tonight is our only opportunity to prepare for our heavily promoted Pop Montreal debut at O Patro Vys on Friday night.
Besides, Matt Murphy’s latest band City Field is scheduled to play in less than an hour. As a Pop Montreal musician, you not only have a responsibility to play a great show for your audience, you also have a duty to be a part of as many audiences as you can. With our free passes to all shows, there is no excuse.
Finally Katie shows up. She is forgiven immediately. It is neither the time nor the place to let bad vibes take over. After a quick run-through of our set, we all agree that everything sounds good, and we are free to go. We race down St. Laurent Boulevard to the Sala Rossa and arrive at the venue seconds before City Field takes the stage. Suddenly, it occurs to me that perhaps the Pop Montreal gods are on my side after all—and they’re telling me to buy a shot of Jack Daniels, quickly followed by a Griffon Blonde.
Thursday 29 September (Day Two)
It’s 2 PM and, as expected, I’m terribly hungover. As I sit on my toilet, peeing, I try to piece together the previous night. Was City Field any good? No, no they weren’t. Luckily for the band, a Matt Murphy performance is like pizza or sex—even when it’s bad, it’s still pretty good. Did I make it to the Besnard Lakes/Bionic show? No, I drunkenly did not. A sense of failure hits me like a surge of diarrhea.
It’s 8 PM and I have successfully failed to do everything that I was supposed to do today. So I desert my half-finished crossword puzzle and head back to the Treatment Room, this time to rehearse with my other band, the Field Register, with which I play bass. TFR along with Plants and Animals will be the other two bands joining Timber at O Patro Vys tomorrow night. After fumbling through our practice set, I assure my bandmates that I will play better at the show. They pretend to believe me and, on that note, we mosey on down to another Pop Montreal venue, Academy Club, for the evening’s entertainment. Long-time friend, actor and comedian Joe Cobden is opening the show with his standup routine, fellow Timberite Katie Moore is doing her solo thing and wacky funk band Masters of the Universe are headlining.
It’s around 11 PM when we arrive. The place is not even half full, and people seem generally confused and out of place. The Pop Montreal gods speak to me and suddenly I’m double-fisted. Joe’s standup antics are hilarious and Katie’s songs sound beautiful, but it’s still not enough to lift the dark cloud that has decided to settle over Academy Club tonight. It seems odd, but I guess a good show isn’t solely dependent on the performers. It’s also a product of the venue and its inhabitants, which, on this night, cannot seem to harmonize. Maybe Masters of the Universe can save this lemon of a show. Two minutes into their first song I remember that I hate wacky funk music. I try to summon the Pop Montreal gods for guidance but they’ve already gone to bed. Or perhaps they made their way over to the Sala Rossa to see Billy Childish, which is where I should’ve gone. Fuck. Oh well. No, fuck.
Friday 30 September (Day Three: Showtime!)
It’s 1 PM and I’ve just returned from my neighbourhood Quatre Frères with a carton of eggs, a pack of bacon, orange juice sans pulp and a copy of the Gazette. Today, I’ve got to take it the fuck easy. Tonight is our night to prove ourselves as worthy Pop Montreal headliners. I open up the paper to see what everybody else in the world has been up to. New Orleans appears to be on the mend. The Habs are gearing up for what looks to be another kick-ass season. Business people are, well … doing stuff. Finally I turn to the Arts section and am shocked to read that Matt LeMay has chosen our show as tonight’s Pop Montreal “best bet.” What the …? Matt LeMay? Have I ever met him? How does he know who we are? I always thought that you needed a manager or a bribe or an inside friend to get your band promoted by the media.
So … today I’m definitely taking it the fuck easy. I don’t want to do anything stupid or crazy to jeopardize this show’s chance to shine. That means no smoking weed, no drinking beer and especially no thinking about my ex-girlfriend who just dumped me a few days ago. This is neither the time nor the place to let bad vibes take over.
It’s 7 PM when we start our sound check at O Patro Vys; once again, Katie is late. On top of that, I’ve spent the entire day feeling dumped and miserable. But the show must go on, so we conduct our sound check without our bass player. I’m depressed.
Sound check wraps up and Timber’s sound is as good as it’s going to get. Five minutes later, Plants and Animals begin their quest for the perfect sound, and Katie shows up looking overtired and a little ticked off. I guess no one remembered to let Katie know that sound check was at 7. We’re fuckers. Both of us feeling miserable, Katie and I duck out for a cigarette and a hug. She’s on no sleep and probably still feeling a little shitty about her crappy show last night, and I’ve got a bad case of the “I miss my girlfriend” blues. We decide it’s perfectly okay to feel bad and arrange to meet back here in a couple of hours.
10:15 PM is roughly a couple hours later: we’re back at O Patro Vys. I have just enough time to buy Beer No. 1 of the night and to say hello to a couple of old friends before I hit the stage with the Field Register. By the time we start playing, the crowd has already swelled to a near packed house. My bandmates are on fire right from the very first note, but I’m still not all there. Fortunately for me, we’ve been playing these songs for a while now, and I’m able to activate the autopilot—a device that is usually reserved for those regrettable occasions when I accidentally get hammered right before a show. The rest of the band senses this and picks up my slack, ripping through each song in a perfectly balanced space somewhere between excited spontaneity and precise execution. After our last song, the audience goes nuts. I’m in such a daze that I start clapping and cheering too, as if I had been watching from the audience the whole time. What kind of dork claps for his own band? Time for Beer No. 2.
Plants and Animals are up next. The crowd swells even further. If you’ve never seen Plants and Animals before, you’ve been deprived of a truly masterfully crafted musical experience. They are a supergroup made up of three of Montreal’s best musicians: fellow Timberites Warren Spicer (guitar, vocals) and Matthew Woodley (drums, vocals) and native Quebecer and guitar phenom Nicholas Basque (guitar, vocals). Sure, there are plenty of top-notch players in town who can really play, but few that I’ve seen are able to use their instruments to speak so fluidly to each other. They lead one another through their songs, twisting and turning down uncharted avenues, always speaking in urgent tones, always winding up at the perfect place. It’s like watching a blind man find his way through a maze without hitting a single wall.
I enjoy their set with a steady stream of drool dripping down my gaping jaw and into my beer. The set ends, and Ships at Night are now two for two. The crowd reaches its maximum capacity. Thank you, Matt LeMay.
It’s 12:15 AM when the soundman urges us to begin our set. I hop on stage and place my beers on top of my amp. We open with one of Warren’s songs, an uppity mandolin strummer called “Representative” that is usually good for getting the audience on our side right off the bat. It works despite my lacklustre efforts. We follow that up with one of my own numbers called “Gossip,” which was originally recorded as a sad, eerie tune, but has since evolved into a happy, upbeat reggae jam. Somewhere during this song something inside of me snaps. I am no longer a pathetic, drunk, penniless dumpee who can’t even manage his band properly. For the next hour or so, I am a competent songwriter surrounded by incredible musicians, playing to a sold-out crowd in the best music festival in the country.
The rest of the set is kind of a blur. I remember breaking into a guitar solo during one of Warren’s new songs (something I haven’t attempted since I was a sixteen-year-old punk-rocker butchering Bad Religion covers at Halifax’s Café Olé) and ripping through an amped-up version of Neil Young’s “Words,” the last song on his 1972 classic album Harvest. The highly spirited crowd responds with a disarming ovation that nearly brings me to tears. Ships at Night get their hat trick.
Monday 3 October (Epilogue)
I spend the remainder of the festival whoring myself across town, drinking beer with the Pop Montreal gods. Highlights include a deafening North of America performance at the Sala Rossa that I swear took years off my life, a ridiculously hilarious Neil Hamburger gag fest at Zoobizarre that left some pee on my underwear and an outstanding comeback show by Katie at Divan Orange last night that left something else on my underwear.
Now that all this Pop Montreal mayhem is said and done, I can’t help but feel slightly ridiculous for putting so much pressure on the occasion. Not only was there room for Timber amid an all-star roster of shit-hot bands, but there seemed to be room enough for everyone, musicians and audiences alike—or, at least room for those who didn’t mind spending every night with a platoon of alcoholics who would rather be hungover for work than miss a good show at the Casa.
You wouldn’t happen to know anyone like that would you?
To listen to mp3s of songs by Timber and other Ships at Night bands, click here.
Dave Macleod is a Montreal-based painter and musician. Timber’s album is called The New Gentleman’s Shuffle and can be purchased through the Ships at Night website.