Register Wednesday | August 15 | 2018
Alternate Universe Illustration by Jonathan Dyck.

Alternate Universe

Behind the scenes at Montreal’s iconic indie label, Constellation Records.

Unbeknownst to their conductors and crew, the freight trains that pass through Montreal’s Mile End neighbourhood have, for the last twenty years, been crushing pennies—thousands and thousands of pennies—placed on the tracks first by members of the enigmatic instrumental post-rock collective Godspeed You! Black Emperor and, these days, by the staff at their label, Constellation Records. Since the summer of 1997, one of these newly smooth copper-plated discs has been slipped inside each and every vinyl copy of F#A#∞, Godspeed’s debut record, which Constellation re-presses a few times a year to meet sustained high demand. Along with the penny is a typewritten, fragmentary missive that includes the phrases, “we made a record here in [M]ile End,” and “THIS IS MILE END MY FRIEND.”

“I think the penny on the tracks was my idea,” says Godspeed guitarist Efrim Menuck. “It was just a way to clearly and in a tactile way reference where we were from.”

Mile End—where the band was formed—was, at the time, a post-industrial neighbourhood with large swathes of abandoned space, located in a city still recovering from an economic downturn amidst the shock of the second referendum on whether its province should separate from Canada. Godspeed was from a community of musicians and artists that was embracing the creative opportunities of this post-referendum Montreal—what Menuck calls the city’s “liberating recession.” As rents climbed in other major Canadian cities, low property values and an oversupply of rental units had driven the cost of living down in Montreal, attracting artists from all over the country.

For this community, music became a way of collectively transcending an otherwise bleak time. “Everyone I knew at the time had young man blues,” says Menuck. “Everyone around me seemed to be afflicted in the same way, men and women. So there was something liberating about these moments that we shared, whether it was rehearsals or shows, there was an impossibility to it that seemed to point in the direction of something illuminating.”

F#A#∞, a windswept and desolate record that expanded the emotional horizons of post-rock, quickly became a classic, and Godspeed gained an international following, fuelled in part by the band’s aversion to press.

At the time of their debut, Godspeed was only one band in a burgeoning experimental scene—a scene Constellation Records was founded to support. Two decades later, the label continues to release an adventurous slate of records every year; it’s grown from a small bedroom operation into one of Canada’s most recognizable indie labels, with almost 130 releases to its name. Though Constellation is still headquartered in Mile End, the neighbourhood around it has changed dramatically; its diverse, artistic vibrancy has attracted wealth and wealth’s attendant condo builds and trendy boutique businesses. Through twenty years of change, one thing has remained constant: Constellation has remained a committed champion of non-commercial, experimental music from Montreal and beyond.

Constellation’s founders Don Wilkie and Ian Ilavsky first met through mutual friends in 1994. Soon after, Wilkie returned to Montreal from Toronto, attracted to a small community of Anglophones centred in Mile End that Ilavsky, a musician, was already involved with. Inspired by artist-run indie and punk rock scenes in the United States and the UK, anglo Mile End musicians were struggling to build something similar. A francophone underground existed, but Ilavsky says that linguistic barriers and genre preferences isolated them from it. Moreover, Montreal lacked the venues, studios and labels needed to support a thriving indie scene.

Ilavsky and Wilkie originally sought to open a legal performance space and then grow a record label out of it, but grew frustrated by unsympathetic landlords and municipal red tape. They instead followed the lead of others in the city and started putting on events in living spaces and other semi-legal venues around Montreal. Collaborating with members of Godspeed, they hosted shows at the Hotel2Tango, the loft on Van Horne Avenue where some members of the band were living (nicknamed after the building’s H2T postal code). They also launched a monthly concert series called Musique fragile in their home, an Old Montreal loft they rented from Patti Schmidt (then host of CBC’s Brave New Waves). Geneviève Heistek, who has played strings on many Constellation projects, remembers the Musique fragile concerts as intimate events “where you came and sat on the floor and had to be very quiet.”

Running until 1999, Musique fragile featured the kind of music Constellation had begun to release on their label: raw, creative and unconventional. Sam Shalabi, Frankie Sparo and an early incarnation of A Silver Mt. Zion all played the series. But it was Hotel2Tango that became a hub for artists, home to a fluid group of friends and bandmates, and the epicentre of a new experimental and instrumental rock scene.

A large unit above an auto garage in a strip of two-storey brick buildings, the Hotel2Tango was sandwiched between Van Horne Avenue on one side and the Mile End train tracks on the other. When trains passed by, the walls shuddered and the floorboards creaked “like a boat,” remembers Jessica Moss, who played violin in A Silver Mt. Zion. Moss first visited the space in her late teens. “It was my first time really in a home, loft show environment,” she says, “where there was a kitchen, where somebody lived, [and] was making a sandwich while the public was around. The first time I encountered that world I felt immediately like, ‘Oh yes. Okay.’”

Two black cats named Kylie and Lily, along with Menuck’s dog Wanda, lived in the space. Noxious-smelling fumes from the auto garage below wafted up the staircase, and the back door opened onto the tracks. Creative energy coursed through the loft, which functioned as a home, rehearsal space, recording studio and concert venue, depending on the day. “Everybody was on welfare, or working minimum wage, just hustling,” remembers Ilavsky.

“I was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and I already knew that I didn’t want to participate in whatever the straight world had to offer,” says Moss. “I was naturally drawn to communities and situations where people were working, despite all odds, together.”

Menuck and his roommates covered the rent and the bills using door prices collected from shows. “We used to have to rent it out to a lot of outside people,” he says. “So most of the memories I have are dodgy memories, like having five hundred coked out people in our home, basically, because someone rented it for a dance party.”

But for Menuck and his bandmates, the weekly rhythms of hosting loft shows also provided a sense of purpose they were unable to find doing other, more conventional jobs.

“It felt like we were doing something that mattered, something that we believed in,” says Godspeed bassist Thierry Amar, who also lived in the loft. “There were no limits,” he says. “Nothing was impossible.”

“The labour that went into making that space work, even when it was frustrating, it was rewarding,” Menuck says. “The day of the show would just be ridiculous. You’d wake up early, you’d go to the gear rental place, rent the stuff, come back, take any personal belongings you cared about and throw it into your room, clean up. Then the bands would show up, and the whole time you’d worry about the police showing up, and then somewhere around five in the morning, standing with a beer in your hand, you really felt like you’d won something.”

While curating and hosting Musique fragile, Ilavsky and Wilkie launched Constellation Records. Their first two releases were by Ilavsky’s own band, Sofa, and the third was Godspeed’s F#A#∞. The label, then as now, was hyper-committed to the DIY principles of punk and indie culture.

“We made five hundred vinyls [of F#A#∞],” says Ilavsky. “We cut and pasted every jacket by hand. We glued the photos on the front. We would all get together at the loft, and all the band members would be there and everybody would get assigned to [a] task. We got the first couple hundred made and they went on a scrappy tour, self-booked, tried to sell them out of the back of their van while we finished them up here.”

An encounter on the Toronto leg of Godspeed’s “scrappy” tour connected Constellation to another band they’d later work with, Do Make Say Think (DMST). “Godspeed was playing Toronto at this place called Symptom Hall, sort of a notorious drug hangout and art space,” remembers Justin Small from DMST. “I happened to have a cassette we were making, so I went up to Dave from the band and said, ‘Here’s a tape of my band.’ He took the cassette, listened to it, and gave it to Don and Ian. And they were like, ‘We’ll take you.’”

Small and the rest of the band were thus introduced to the Montreal loft scene, and they immediately felt as though they’d uncovered a new world. This was before the internet really began connecting music scenes in different cities, explains DMST member Charles Spearin. “To have a direct line to all the shows and all the stuff that’s going on in Montreal,” he says, “It felt like there was a blossoming of possibility.”

After releasing F#A#∞, working with Do Make Say Think was a natural progression for Constellation. Both bands boast large lineups with two drummers; both produce sprawling instrumental rock music, though Godspeed is ruminative, gloomy and foreboding, whereas Do Make Say Think is brighter and more sprightly. Together, Godspeed and DMST have released a combined fourteen records on Constellation since they made their debuts in 1997 and 1998, respectively, making them the most prolific artists on the label after A Silver Mt. Zion, a Godspeed offshoot that has released nine records.

On the strength of F#A#∞, Godspeed booked a tour in Europe, where their profile exploded, catching the attention of critics back home. The band’s success raised Constellation’s profile too, shining a light on lesser-known acts like minimalist instrumental quartet Fly Pan Am, and Heistek’s HangedUp, who toured Europe with Godspeed. “We grew very fast for a young label,” says Wilkie. “[We] were always scrambling to catch up.”

By the time Do Make Say Think’s second record was released, distributors were asking for initial runs of as many as five thousand copies, significantly straining the capacity of the small, hands-on enterprise. “We were still using custom papers and foil stamping, and braille and window cuts,” says Ilavsky, who describes the period as stressful but also fun, rewarding and validating.

The international attention garnered by Godspeed did, however, come as a bit of a challenge for other Constellation acts. Both Moss and Spearin speak of music critics’ tendency to lump them in with Constellation’s most famous band. “We could never get out of the shadow,” Moss says of her time in A Silver Mt. Zion. “But what a lucky shadow to be in.”

As Constellation’s profile grew, Ilavsky and Wilkie began to notice that linguistic barriers in their scene were starting to come down, partly thanks to relationships being built between French- and English-speakers in the city’s growing anti-globalization movements. “By 2000, 2001, we could see it changing,” says Ilavsky. “The number of people that would come out to shows was broadening.”

“Part of that also was a lot of the music happening at that time was instrumental,” adds Wilkie. “[That] allowed the two solitudes to mix a little easier.”

Language aside, the Montreal scene has proven to be a fertile one for Constellation Records. The city’s economic and cultural conditions have contributed to an environment well-suited to the label, committed as it is to experimental, sometimes downright weird music, in addition to the indie ideals that aim to eschew, or at least subdue, the logic of the market. “I don’t think [Constellation] would have survived anywhere else in Canada other than Montreal,” says Small of Do Make Say Think.

Before Constellation was founded, few Montreal indie musicians were known outside of their own city; now, they are recognized as a cultural force, and not only because of early-2000s phenoms like Arcade Fire and Wolf Parade. Labels like Constellation, Alien8 Recordings, Dare to Care Records and Arbutus Records have all helped showcase the diverse scenes that have sprung up in the city over the past two decades. “The culture of this city,” says Menuck, “continues to grow very stubborn flowers.”

Rent controls and cultural factors may mean gentrification proceeds more slowly in Montreal than in other cities, but it proceeds nonetheless. Even in the Hotel2Tango’s early years, there were signs of what was to come. One of the first condo buildings in Mile End was built directly across the street from the loft, Menuck remembers, and it “flattened the perspective” out of the Hotel’s front windows. “We used to fantasize about burning it down during its construction,” he says. Later, the forested green space across the tracks where Menuck walked his dog was replaced by a Home Depot.

Unable to secure a long-term lease from speculative landlords, and uneasy about renting in a building that was constantly changing owners, Godspeed members moved their recording studio down the street about ten years ago, to a building shared with the Constellation offices.

After the recording studio moved, the Hotel2Tango survived as a jam space, and a number of visual artists, including Moss, rented studios there as well. But a handful of years later, the building was purchased by someone who Moss describes as the textbook embodiment of a “big, bad, landlord capitalist.”

“He couldn’t handle people walking overhead… or listening to the radio,” Moss says. “[He would] storm up and just freak out.” Within six months, the new owner had kicked the tenants out of the space.

Moss says she thinks the Hotel2Tango could have been saved, had the tenants acted as a united front. “There was enough of us that we could have had an organizing body in a way,” she says, “but we were all in our own little worlds.” In contrast to the early days, the tenants had, by that point, stopped hosting shows and parties and holding meetings in the space.

By the time the tenants were forced out, the physical state of the loft had also deteriorated—whole corners of the space had become inaccessible due to the abandoned belongings of tenants past, and new tenants hesitated to take responsibility. “There was too much history in there,” says Moss, “and nobody could physically or mentally navigate it.”

The original loft—and, with it, a significant piece of Montreal’s cultural heritage—is now lost, having been taken over by the garage downstairs to store tires and car parts. But the name lives on down the street, where the Hotel2Tango recording studio continues to operate. It was there that Moss recorded her first solo record for Constellation, Pools of Light, in 2016, and where Godspeed recorded their most recent album, Luciferian Towers, as well. Constellation has also expanded beyond the tight-knit community of its origins, signing the American jazz and improv reed player Matana Roberts, and releasing classical-leaning projects like The Infected Mass, a droning requiem by Winnipeg-based composer Matthew Patton. Though Constellation’s orbit has grown, its ethos and aesthetic have stayed close to home.

One ritual in particular connects Constellation to its early days. Looking to harness the power of the freight trains that used to shake the walls of the old Hotel2Tango, staff still routinely sneak down to the Mile End tracks, pennies in their hands.