Illustrations by Hugh Langis.
Twenty-four-year-old Claire Boucher, better known as Grimes, climbs onto a table in the middle of the loft party and gesticulates wildly with her cigarette, calling out for a guy named Neil to join her. Her bleached-green hair is long and greasy and wild under a white feather headdress. As the rapper Cadence Weapon spins Jay-Z, the room sways along, passing drugs and bottles of beer smuggled inside under winter jackets. Win Butler and Régine Chassagne of Arcade Fire are in a corner, trying to remain unnoticed. It’s late March and outside the Montreal sky threatens snow, but in here it’s warm and smoky, smelling of pot and sweat and sexual tension.
This is the after party for Grimes’ sold-out hometown show. She’s been sick and erratic lately, staying up late to write cryptic tweets (“everyone wants a fucking favour”); her set tonight, at nearby Cabaret Mile End, was only six songs long. Backed by the shirtless and feather-boa-ed members of the band Born Gold, Boucher spent the concert begging the technicians to turn her vocals up and the lights down. Whenever she failed to hit one of her signature high notes, she screamed “Fuck!” into the microphone. After the show, the crowd—denied an encore and unable to get to the coat check due to the crush of people—milled around, waiting for something to happen. Eventually, everyone spilled into the streets outside, promising to text each other once they found out the location of the after party.
Before I came to Montreal, hoping to talk with Boucher about the pressures of fame and the do-it-yourself musical community she comes from, she sent me an email telling me that she was too exhausted to do any more interviews or photo shoots: “to be honest, im incredibly over whelemd [sic] and exhausted and will be much more-so by the time I arrive in montreal. I really need a break, i guess.”
So instead, I just watch her from across the party. This month, she’s been featured in countless publications, including the New York Times, La Presse and the Montreal Mirror. Her shows at South By Southwest earlier in the year had already prompted outlets like the Daily Telegraph to tag Montreal with an unfortunate label: “the new Brooklyn.” The day after the party, pictures surface on the blog Hipster Runoff depicting Boucher licking the breasts of a notorious local poet-cum-party girl. They are removed once Boucher’s parents in Vancouver discover them and give her a lecture about self-control.
Local label Arbutus released Grimes’ Visions in February, in partnership with UK indie giant 4AD. It was immediately tapped as one of the year’s breakout albums. Visions was recorded on GarageBand during three weeks of nocturnal sessions in a mid-sized bedroom on Parc Avenue. The windows were blacked out; Boucher drew murals on the wall and lost her mind. The result is a dark-edged dance record made for solipsists; an album that sounds like the internet—infectious, sad, futuristic, addictive.
Grimes’ music uses basic pop structures—listen for the gyrating pulse that underlies “Oblivion,” Visions’ biggest banger—but the swooning, insecure lyrics make the songs sound sadder, as if the person you want to dance with is far across the room. On “Oblivion,” Boucher resigns herself to hoping that she’ll “see you on a dark night.” The sexy, frantic “Nightmusic” is haunted by lines like, “I’ve been thinking, are you thinking?” I listened to Visions a lot when I walked around Montreal in the winter, passing through the graffiti-covered underpasses on Parc. It’s good rumination music, the soundtrack for when you leave the party alone.
Every time I log into Twitter, I see Grimes’ name; every time I hang out with friends, we talk about the album—what it means for Montreal and how the rest of the city’s musicians feel about her supposedly overnight success. (She’s actually released several previous records.) Some people play it cool (“I’ve listened to a few songs,” says Dan Seligman, the co-founder of the Pop Montreal festival) and some hint at a fond resentment (“I hate her guts sometimes, for sure,” says Jasper Baydala, who plays as Kool Music and laid out Grimes’ album artwork). Rumours abound: Boucher’s paintings are being scouted by Andy Warhol’s representation at the Gagosian Gallery; her publicist is fielding sitcom offers.
Grimes’ success and the exposure she’s brought her Arbutus label-mates—Sean Nicholas Savage, TOPS and TONSTARTSSBANDHT, among others—have made Montreal a high-profile indie-rock hotspot once again, reminiscent of the time, several years ago, when Arcade Fire attracted the world’s attention to the city. Although Montreal has plenty of other worthy independent labels, like Secret City and Alien8, the rise of Grimes has made Arbutus a litmus test for the promise of the city’s young musicians. Today’s tastemakers are fickle, and too much hype can cause a community to cannibalize itself—especially one as small and tight-knit as Montreal’s music scene. As Morrissey once said, “We hate it when our friends become successful.”
During the early-to-mid-aughts, from the outside looking in, Montreal’s music scene seemed like the apex of cool. The Dears’ No Cities Left mixed sweeping art rock with jazz-inflected prog, the Unicorns functioned as a depraved live-action cartoon, and the Stills and Stars wrote swooning love songs for drunk McGill students. During my first year at the University of Toronto, all the bands my newly acquired friends and I listened to were from Montreal. We traded records through our dorm-room web network, discovering bands like Pony Up! (an all-girl act that wrote songs about masturbating to Matthew Modine movies) and Malajube (francophones who crossed over thanks to the track “Montreal -40°C”). Toronto had Feist and Broken Social Scene, but by the time Arcade Fire’s game-changing album Funeral was released in the fall of 2004, it felt like everyone yearned for Montreal.
I romanticized the city then; we all did. At the time, when journalists from the New York Times and Spin were trying to explain the rise of the Montreal music scene—the so-called New Seattle—they didn’t provide many reasons other than “cheap real estate” and “vaguely European.” It was dreamy to think about a French city full of musicians who existed solely on bagels and cigarettes, all living in inexpensive, glorious apartments steps away from the venues where they played epic concerts late into the night.
“It wasn’t like that at all,” says Don Wilkie, who has resided in Montreal since the early nineties; he’s the co-founder of Constellation Records, the home of influential acts like Godspeed You! Black Emperor. “I mean, certainly that whole thing drew a lot of new people into Montreal. But as the people who lived through that hangover, it’s the last thing we wanted to happen in Montreal. Montreal has always been a vibrant, multifaceted place for music, in so many genres. That wasn’t the case in Seattle. So part of that comparison made us all go, ‘Oh my God, what shitty fucking journalism this is.’”
Still, the era inspired a musical renaissance in the city, one shaped not only by a new generation of musicians but by the community that supports them. In 2007, at the age of twenty, Sebastian Cowan moved to Montreal after graduating from an elite recording school in London, England. Inspired by the European Situationists and Warhol’s Factory, he hoped to start a conceptual space with a few friends, and soon found a 4,600-square-foot loft on Beaubien Ouest. They installed their own plumbing, built walls, grabbed vintage furniture from Craigslist and threw their first show that November. And they called the space Lab Synthèse.
Then David, Cowan’s best friend and a resident of the space, committed suicide. “We were all in a daze for the next few months, completely traumatized,” says Emily Kai Bock, another former resident of Lab Synthèse. (She directed the music video for “Oblivion.”) “And I feel like Sebastian, especially, maybe used Lab as a way to distract himself from the loss of his best friend. I think we all became really productive with the space just to fuel all that anger and pain into something.”
Fixated on turning their loft into a kind of community centre, Bock, Cowan, his brother Alex and others began to curate a series of events like impromptu performance-art shows and wild concerts. Many musicians had moved to Montreal from Edmonton, Vancouver and elsewhere, forming what would later become the roster of Arbutus Records, and Lab Synthèse evolved into one of Montreal’s most inspiring sites.
But one day in 2009, Bock and a few roommates were sitting at home when eight police officers came to the door and raided the loft. They charged Lab a $2,500 fine and removed dozens of bottles of beer. The final straw was the death of their benevolent landlord, whose grieving widow demanded that their rent be doubled—the first time the space’s rent had been raised in forty years.
Loft spaces in Montreal are transient by nature. Before Lab Synthèse, there were places like 100-Sided Die, the Electric Tractor and Friendship Cove. Constellation formed in a loft-slash-studio called Hotel 2 Tango; more recent spaces have names like the Torn Curtain and Silver Door. After the loss of Lab, Cowan decided to focus exclusively on recording his friends’ music and documenting his community. Arbutus was born.
I’m supposed to go out for breakfast with Sean Nicholas Savage, but we end up in an alleyway behind Sparrow, the resto-bar where he works, so that he can get a free sandwich. With his ear on the door, Savage listens for signs of activity like a child trying to hear the ocean in a shell. “I guess no one’s there,” he says, disappointed. Then he sings, in a cowboy twang, “Doodle-y-doodle-y-doo.”
With his broken front teeth and frayed Hawaiian shirts, Savage looks like a Steve Buscemi character. During his time with Arbutus, he’s arguably helped shift Montreal’s DIY scene toward pop music—the ghastly romanticism of eighties Rod Stewart and saxophone solos. Savage sings the kind of pop songs usually reserved for suburban grocery stores; anthems for desperate characters who need reassurance. At a Toronto venue called Double Double Land, I once watched a crowd try to wrap its collective head around this gyrating singer with the Casio keyboard. By the end of the night, Savage had won the audience over—his arms outstretched, eyes closed, singing, “You changed me, I changed you.”
Savage has released ten albums in half a decade (the splendid Flamingo came out last year), but he’s still the kind of artist who orders his percussionists to drum on cardboard boxes. Seligman calls him a great songwriter but a “total fuckup.” Indeed, when you listen to Savage’s music, you want to protect him from the world, as if guarding a secret.
“Everyone who’s in our friend group is ‘product focused,’” he says. “And maybe I’m suffering a little bit because I haven’t been so product focused. Like, I put out three albums last year and nobody heard them.” Savage is a certifiable genius, but eccentric charm like his is hard to harness, let alone brand. Though Cowan generously calls him “the flagship artist of Arbutus,” Savage isn’t the one exchanging tweets with Skrillex. He doesn’t even own a phone.
“The first time I went to New York I was like, ‘Man, New York’s so big, nobody cares about what we’re doing up in Canada,’” he says. “And then a few trips later, everyone was like, ‘Claire this, Claire that.’ And I was like, ‘Wow, that’s really close to home.’ So at first I thought the world was too big, but now I’m like, ‘Oh man, it’s almost too small.’”
The world of Arbutus is particularly tiny. Savage once played in Silly Kissers, some of whose members have since refashioned themselves into the pop band TOPS. (Its debut album Tender Opposites, released a week after Visions, is one of the most underrated records of the year.) A pair of brothers makes up the menacing, unclassifiable TONSTARTSSBANDHT. The Polaris-nominated act Braids started out on Arbutus before moving to Flemish Eye and Kanine; Braids singer Raphaelle Standell-Preston is also in a duo called Blue Hawaii with her boyfriend Alex Cowan.
Then there are the artists who exist within Arbutus’ orbit, even if they’re not on the label. Cadence Weapon, whose real name is Roland Pemberton, frequently DJs at parties. Caila Thompson-Hannant of Mozart’s Sister has already been tapped as Montreal’s next Grimes by the Telegraph; she also used to play in the party band Think About Life with Graham Van Pelt, who records atmospheric pop as Miracle Fortress. And Arbutus has its own experimental subsidiary called Movie Star, whose artists include Kool Music, Flow Child and Solar Year.
The Arbutus roster’s emphasis on “bleep-bloop weirdo-ness” (to quote Hipster Runoff) can seem alienating if you moved to Montreal to start a rock band. There’s not a lot of room for killer riffs or impassioned rock ‘n’ roll in a room full of ex-arts students and their looping pedals. (Some of the best rock acts in Montreal, like Parlovr and Reversing Falls, generally eschew loft shows in favour of slots at regular venues like Il Motore and Sala Rossa.) This insularity—and aesthetic divide—has resulted in a fair share of backlash, sharply manifested in a satirical post on Craigslist in late March:
i am looking to form new hip synth-based indie band. must be from edmonton and live in the mile-end. no musical talent necessary. just have cool fashion taste. weird looking girls that we can dress up to look pretty would be a bonus. my friends at arbutus will put anything we give them out so we are good to go label wise.
It ended pointedly: “(no french people please.)”
Despite Grimes’ success, Arbutus is still a hobby label, and for the moment neither Cowan nor co-director and publicist Marilis Cardinal get paid. Both have backgrounds that make them ideal caretakers for erratic musicians like Boucher and Savage: Cowan is the oldest of nine children, while Cardinal has lived on her own since she was seventeen. (The child of Quebec separatists, she didn’t speak English until she was thirteen.)
“Seb and I are definitely mom and dad,” admits Cardinal. The parental role that Cowan and Cardinal play for their friends extends to branding their bands, booking their shows and holding their hair back on the road. They’re the people Savage calls when he’s slept on a bench in New York City the night before, the people TOPS calls when the band is kicked off a bill in Edmonton. They’re currently scrambling to find Boucher a place to live for the month that she’s in Montreal; she’s been essentially homeless for the last two years. “As it is, I’m working seven days a week, ten hours a day,” says Cowan. “I’m kind of working all the time, whenever I’m awake. But I want to help my friends do this thing that I really believe in and love.”
It’s not yet clear whether Grimes’ success will have the trickle-down effect that some at Arbutus were hoping for. Cowan’s “dream with Claire staying on Arbutus is that the attention she brings will benefit the other bands and in doing so the money would filter down into paying me to make a video or Sean to press his albums, and they’d sell, and the money would go down to help, like, Solar Year,” Bock says. How realistic is that dream? “It’s worked in the past,” Bock continues. “Joy Division was on a tiny label. There are lots of tiny-band success stories, like Ani DiFranco. But it’s hard.”
One day on St. Viateur Street, I sit with Andrew Rose, the CEO of Secret City Records, and we watch the musicians go by: Roland Pemberton, Graham Van Pelt, Torquil Campbell of Stars. Sometimes the claustrophobia of the city is asphyxiating. (The act of bumping into people over and over again as you walk down St. Viateur has been called getting “Mile Ended.”) “It is pretty caricature-y when you’re here and you’re in this tiny, tiny anglo scene for more than a couple of years,” says Thompson-Hannant. “‘Oh that guy, he’s crazy,’ or ‘That guy’s a total asshole, oh well.’”
In Montreal, being a successful anglophone musician sometimes means leaving the city behind. After a summer tour in which she will travel across Canada with the dubstep acts Skrillex and Diplo on a private passenger train, Boucher is heading to Los Angeles for a few months. There are a few booking companies like Blue Skies Turn Black and a host of small labels in Montreal, but it’s nearly impossible to get noticed outside the community. Audiences in the city are notoriously broke and lazy; it’s much easier to convince your friends to pay $5 to come to your loft show than to pay $15 at a real venue. (Blue Skies Turn Black booker Evan Dubinsky says that he sometimes creates reduced-cover lists in order to convince a band’s friends to attend a show.)
Arbutus functions well as the documentation of a scene. But as Grimes gets more and more popular, Cowan and Cardinal, the label’s workhorses, will be left with a catalogue of artists they’ll need to mould into mainstream acts if they want the label to keep growing. That potential is obvious in TOPS and Sean Nicholas Savage, but more experimental acts like TONSTARTSSBANDHT will be difficult to monetize. Eventually, people need to get paid. Still, if Arbutus can expand enough to keep the world’s attention on Montreal, this could be the beginning of something more sustainable: a musical community that works harder to take care of its own.
The city’s music scene will always be the most compelling reason to move to Montreal. I came here with a playlist in mind, and I keep adding songs to it all the time. But living in Mile End doesn’t always have the sweeping romance once suggested by Arcade Fire, who exhorted an entire generation to “wake up.” When you’re cloistered in a windowless loft venue, surrounded by a tangle of ex-roommates, ex-boyfriends, ex-musical collaborators and people willingly wearing overalls, you can almost feel the walls reverberate with anxiety and stifled ambition.
There’s a song on Visions called “Be A Body.” When Boucher sings it live, she stands with her feet firmly splayed like an emboldened Ian Curtis. “I lean on walls until I stand, I touch my face with my hand,” Grimes instructs. “Be a body.” The song, which configures Boucher’s voice into dolphin-squeak arpeggios, is about her relationship with technology and how important it is to remain a human being. But I like to think of it as an instruction manual for how to survive a party in Montreal: how important it is, when you’re peaking on MDMA and scanning the room for someone to make out with, to just take a breath and relax.