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M For Montreal: A Quest For New Canadian Sounds & Leonard Cohen's House
Chris Roberts , December 15th, 2009 08:07

Chris Roberts travels to the M For Montreal festival in Canada to take in the country's finest sights, bands and night life... Photograph by Alexandre Bedard

It's a strange myth, probably perpetuated by Americans, that Canada doesn't do music. In recent years: Arcade Fire, The Dears, the Wainwright siblings. In the olden days: Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Mary Margaret O'Hara. And let's not forget modern-day titans Celine Dion and Bryan Adams. That's a pretty healthy strike rate. M For Montreal is a festival presenting "export ready" artists internationally. It's in its fourth year. It's like SXSW or CMJ, only cooler, because fewer of the people you might bump into in Camden are present. Invited here this year (from 19-22 November) are around a dozen UK journalists, agents and management types, along with multiple international "delegates", from countless Americans and a few Germans to one Hungarian and one Croatian. On arrival at the kind of swish state-of-the-art hotel where the staff are so sleek and sexy you have to suppress the urge to lick them, I am given a laminate with 'The Quietus' emblazoned on it and a programme in which they have used a comedy-sunglasses picture of me that upon the organisers' request I sent as a joke, not for a minute imagining they would use it. "You look like Fleegle from The Banana Splits", I'm told. This turns out to be useful.

Our hosts are nothing if not enthusiastic. With all the gig venues within minutes of our location, M For Montreal is huge fun, with a couple of surreally awkward moments. As well as seeing over twenty bands in three nights (about which more soon), we are frog-marched to post-lunch "speed-schmoozing" sessions. These are networking frenzies set up like speed dating, wherein a flock of hopeful promoters and managers line up around an L-shaped conference table to hawk their "amazing new artists" to the petrified Brits. Every five minutes a bell rings and they switch. It's a music journalist's vision of hell. I last seven minutes and a couple of mumbling Germans before running away. They won't find me. They'll be looking for Fleegle from the Banana Splits, an image I retain the ability to shake off. (You'll be stunned to hear that I also bunked off the 11 a.m. conference on the German music industry.)

Generally though, the positivity of our Montreal hosts is infectious. By the second night we are all muttering about catching a couple of bands then getting some kip, but find ourselves lured into watching all the gigs, plus the one up the road afterwards, plus the DJ at the aftershow thing, plus the after-aftershow thing. It is no surprise that the flight back to the UK appears to be ferrying a bunch of burned-out British corpses.

But those bands. Wow. So many of them. And so many of them good. A fellow could get confused! And could quickly run out of space! Who shall I recommend, by adopting a sort of Simon Cowell with cheaper clothes and slightly less rubbish hair posture? From the opening night I'd say watch out for The Luyas (clippy art-rock), Miracle Fortress (arty electro) and the Siouxsie/Xmal goth-femmes going by the genius name of You Say Party! We Say Die! Actually from now on let's declare the word "arty" redundant. It's very rare that a Montreal band will shuffle on in jeans and trainers and shoegaze. They're all "arty". They love their theatrics, their wardrobes, their poses, their lighting. For which they deserve applause. Even the sonically boring bands here offer something peculiar to look at. Think About Life are arch pop-dance, crowd-pleasers; DD/MM/YYYY are raw noise.

On the second night I'm putting Silver Starling (poignant, Arcade Fire-ish) and Parlour (chirpy, Franz Ferdinand-ish) through to the next round. Le Matos are hefty electro-thud purveyors if that's your bag. It seems to be my bag tonight, but sleep deprivation and disorientation may have something to do with that. And on the third day we get a bonus afternoon gig of six of the French-speaking bands, because we haven't seen enough bands already. (The bilingual, Quebecois aspect of Montreal is an added charm). So even though we don't know what they're singing about, Automelodi (New Order meet Soft Cell) are vibrant fun, La Patere Rose are like sexy children's entertainers on a sugar rush, and Geraldine, who we're told changes her name and image every few weeks, is a kookier Lady Gaga shouting "Sold-out capitalisme!"

It's now the final night, somehow, where they pull out the big guns at a bigger venue. Local heroine Melissa Auf Der Mar is the highlight, her star quality undeniable and her heaviosity somewhere between metal and dreamscape. Champion & Ses G-Strings are a feverish mash-up of DJ and six guitarists. Fucked Up are so loud and ugly that I'm compelled to scurry to the aftershow and politely accept silver trays of vodka-apple shots before they're three numbers in. Could any of these acts (Melissa aside) cross over internationally? It's a lottery but I'd be tempted to put a dollar or two on You Say Party! We Say Die!, Silver Starling, maybe Parlour or Champion. A lot will depend on management/promotion, a cold fact of which Montreal appears to be cannily aware. The standard of performances was impressively high. If you'd told me beforehand I'd stay to watch two dozen bands without hanging myself from the Notre Dame cathedral roof (Montreal also has a Notre Dame), and in fact still be buzzing as the whole thing climaxed, I wouldn't have believed you.

We also get a city tour in a bus. Our host Mikey, hungover sometime movie extra, has a unique approach to the role of "tour guide". "There's the cafe where it's easy to meet arty chicks", he says. "And this is the mountain, which is, like, a big deal. Oh and that guy there, if you turn to your left, he's a retired drug dealer. Here's the Olympic Stadium, where Nadia Comaneci is buried." "She's still alive," we point out. "Must be awful for her", someone retorts. They give us "legendary" local sandwiches, which people travel for miles to sample. They look and taste like roadkill.

At some stage I wander off to try to find Leonard Cohen's house, thinking of it as a pilgrimage. Someone's given me directions, but they're wack. (Oddly, Montreal's hip young things think mention of Cohen is a bit stuffy and embarrassing, a bit like we think of Shakespeare). Then nearby I spy Rue Marie-Anne, and deduce from his song title "So Long, Marianne" that I may be into something. I take a few photos, not least of a curious-looking Zen Buddhist Centre. That evening someone explains to me that the Zen Buddhist Centre is indeed the famed Cohen house, where in his prime "he wrote all those songs and banged all those beautiful bookish chicks". He's now bequeathed it to the Zen Buddhists.

Also in the name of research I visit Vieux Montreal, where Frenchness and curly, colourful buildings dominate (New Montreal is all skyscrapers and glass and steel and nineteen miles of underground shops and transport links, which helps them when the Canadian winter gets severe). I go to the harbour, where the biggest ship I've ever seen in my life rolls by, the size of several football stadiums. And the Museum Of Contemporary Art, where there's a great Tricia Middleton exhibition consisting of a dystopian fairy grotto and network of dimly-lit caves where everything is a little bit off, and decidedly sinister. Some stoners are lying on the floor in there staring at the ceiling, and I understand why. In the next room bells ring every time your feet touch the floor, and as you back out they ring backwards, with whooshing backward-sound noises.

It's been a blast and a blur, although somehow fatigue doesn't prevent us showing the Quebecois how proper dancing is done at the wrap party. As your "delegate", Great Britain, I feel my stamina did you proud, apart from getting confused as to whether I was speaking English or French, and looking like a Banana Split. The Montreal music industry is keen to shake off any clichéd perceptions of moose, maples and ice hockey, and if they continue to present showcases of this quality (and learn to refrain from mentioning Arcade Fire in every sentence) they'll reap the dividends they deserve. So we partied! Now we die!