By Sara Saljoughi
In the past two years, Montreal has been a darling of music critics, and this has brought the city rapid and immense international attention. But the coverage on Montreal’s music scene is often shortsighted and fickle, and tends to focus on a singular aesthetic, overlooking the other communities that exist. Through all this, though, creative Montrealers continue to participate in city life by engaging in remarkably successful, locally sustained collaborative projects. This happens not only in the music scene, through the work of musicians, small label owners, and local concert promoters, but also in the work of neighbourhood arts organizers and indie artists at large. Together, they’re redefining the Who and How of independent art.
Le-Son-666, a two-year-old record label in Montreal, thrives on collaboration between diverse artists within the city’s musical scene. Initially started by members of the band Intercom, to release their own work, Le-Son-666 has always taken care of its own recording, mixing, production, and artwork. Until very recently, the label also did all of its own CD and record packaging, and handled its own distribution and promotion. The label recently released a compilation called Rhythmo Tropicale, featuring a wide variety of artists. Label co- owner Jean-Michel Gadoua says that the inclusion of artists with “international notoriety” (such as Les Georges Leningrad) has helped the lesser-known artists on the compilation gain wider exposure. Deeper collaboration is key to all of the projects of Le-Son-666, be they concerts or record releases. In fact, Le- Son-666 regularly hooks up with Drone, a team of projectionists who work using self-created software, and with prolific local silkscreeners Alphonse-Raymond Serigraphie. “What’s great about the scene in Montreal is that I’ve never felt any sort of competition. Instead, I’ve found people who are into sharing and helping each other,” says Gadoua.
Sharing and helping are the major motivations for Sophie Trudeau, musician and owner of Bangor Records. A musician first (Godspeed You! Black Emperor, A Silver Mt. Zion), Trudeau started Bangor to experience the full process of putting out a record. The inaugural Bangor release was a full-length record from The Mile End Ladies String Auxiliary, a band in which Trudeau plays and whose name is inspired by its neighbourhood. Trudeau cites Mile End as an advantageous spot for its numerous live venues and the fact that it is home to many musicians. Since starting Bangor, Trudeau has found herself in a position to help her friends with their projects, and this informs her vision of the label. The artwork for the Mile End record was designed by local artist Erik Petersen. “Local art is a very important feature on all the releases and will feature prominently on our next vinyl release,” says Trudeau. Rather than focusing on a particular sound for Bangor, which offers everything from experimental noise to a string trio to sloppy loud rock, Trudeau places importance on the look and meaning of the label in terms of its role in documenting moments (small or otherwise) in the city’s music scene. Word-of-mouth exposure has been important for Bangor Records who, despite having acquired international distribution, still sell most of their records within Montreal. The Mile End Ladies String Auxiliary have only ever played two shows, but one of those was a fortuitous live collaboration with Warren Ellis of Australia’s revered Dirty Three. This was made possible through the support of the Suoni per il Popolo festival, which is affiliated with La Sala Rossa, Montreal’s beloved epicentre of new music and culture.
One of the recent changes in the music scene in Montreal has been the increase in venues where small bands can play, such as the Friendship Cove and le Divan Orange. The latter is the site for many of the shows organized by local concert promoters Mandatory Moustache. Started in early 2005, the Mandatory Moustache Local Series collaborated with le Divan Orange, a co-op venue/café, to create this series of pay-what- you-can shows that often features three or more bands in one gig. Andre Guerette (co-founder, with Matt Miller) says that this partnership “allowed us to pursue our goal of contributing to the local scene by developing an inclusive and transparent means of organizing events to support local artists.”
Mandatory Moustache have exposed Montrealers to the musicians and artists working in the city. Trudeau says, “They’re really on the ball. Some bands haven’t even played yet, [but people] know them and are booking shows.” Guerette says it has been rewarding to hear about bands that went on to collaborate after meeting through a shared billing at a Mandatory Moustache show. Audiences are also a focal point for Guerette and Miller. One of their goals in starting the series was to inspire audiences to go and see bands that they might miss in another context, and this is facilitated through the pay-what-you-can system. Reflecting on this, Guerette says, “I’ve been told several times that we’re a great meeting place for new residents of the city–We hope to continue to have a positive impact on this city and our local scene in the years to come.”
Through their collaboration with artists Jack Dylan and Nick Daygristle, Mandatory Moustache have also added to the city’s visual landscape. Often working with them on the design of show posters and occasionally organizing art exhibits that run parallel to music events, Mandatory Moustache aspire to provide a medium for up-and-coming visual artists as well, helping them with printing and/or silkscreening costs.
The illustrators, painters, zinesters and organizers working alongside the music community are busy brewing up projects of their own to empower their scene. Louis Rastelli, editor of the long-running zine Fishpiss, has come up with a quirky medium in which local artists, musicians, and crafters can sell their work. Installed in old cigarette machines, Distroboto sells everything from mini CDs to finger puppets and is found in various cafes and bars throughout Montreal. Recognizing that distribution is often a big pain for musicians and small publishers, Rastelli points out that through Distroboto they can install their work and sell it, and keep 85 per cent of the profits, rather than the usual 40 or 50 per cent. “The best thing about Fishpiss and Distroboto is that people have told me at one point or another that one of these things inspired them to do something themselves,” says Rastelli.
Anna Leventhal, co-founder of Bibliograph/e, a library housing over 500 zines and artist books, is one of those people who works on a volunteer basis to help create links between bookmakers and the public. In addition to creating and maintaining the library (located as part of Café Toc Toc in Mile End), Leventhal has also collaborated with artist Logan MacDonald to set up workshops on storytelling and drawing, and has hosted readings at Bibliograph/e as part of an effort to provide a community space. MacDonald has even made a book out of the drawings created in one of the workshops, and it is now being sold as a fundraiser for Bibliograph/e. Leventhal appreciates the benefits of such a collaborative scene, but does point out that it sometimes runs the risk of turning into a “loose network of splinter groups as opposed to a community.” And community, for Leventhal, means “people with shared interests working toward a common goal.”
One group that truly embodies community, then, is a group of zinesters, artists, and musicians in the working class neighbourhood of St-Henri. The St-Henri Walking Distance Distro, created by Sarah Mangle and Paula Belina, is a free monthly delivery service that collects zines and CDs made by people in St-Henri and delivers them to subscribing members’ doorsteps by foot. In turn, the artists are paid through monthly fundraising events highlighting St-Henri talent at the Bread Factory, a loft space-cum-music venue. Mangle points out that unlike Mile End or the Plateau, St-Henri lacks gathering spaces or indie music venues, and this was a motivation in trying to gather and encourage people to perform and contribute. “This project is about all of us introducing ourselves to each other in rich and playful ways–Our neighbours become our most important audience,” she explains. Mangle’s project is also about being self-sustaining and local, rather than showing the outside world its talents. Mangle emphasizes the importance of “being accountable to each other and the space we take up,” in terms of strengthening a local scene.
Perhaps what’s most exciting about making art and music in Montreal is the amount of people with whom one can turn ideas into tangible creations. Montreal is truly becoming an independent city, defined and celebrated by its local and DIY culture.
For more information on some of the collaborative love in Montreal: