On a recent trip to La Belle Province I was extremely fortunate to spend 12 blissful, accidental, vaguely French-accented hours exploring Montréal’s underground art and music scene. Up to this point in my vacation north of the border I had nearly gotten into a fight with a Canadiens fan (fuck those guys), I met a Bruins fan from London who owns five hostels in Budapest (she was very nice), seen DEERHOOF live (but not PRIESTS, their van sadly broke down somewhere near Toronto), and hitched a ride back to my hostel with a friendly college-aged couple after ending up on the wrong side of town in search of poutine (so worth it, and as a bonus they didn’t drug me or take my kidneys). But what I hadn’t done yet was take in the vaunted underground culture… because I couldn’t find it above ground. Then again, a newcomer to Boston wandering around alone probably wouldn’t find out about any Hassle shows within two days of showing up, either.
I had read about a local independent press expo, Expozine, taking place on the last day of my trip. Canada’s largest zine fest with nearly 300(!) vendors was a massive undertaking, the kind of event we currently dream about but can only pull off at about 1/8 the size. French and English zines, posters, calendars, books, flyers, pins, and ephemera were littered all over the basement of a very accommodating church. It was really inspiring to see that the arts here were alive and well, with vendors from every walk of life lining the aisles with their stories to sell. Very cool stuff, even if I couldn’t read half of it. Expozine had also piqued my interest in part because of a panel they were having on how Montréal’s music scene grew in popularity over the past decade. I figured I could learn a few things about what Boston might be able to do better, and I got two main takeaways from the talk:
1. Music and the arts are publicly funded through grants in Québec, so the arts flourish because the government wants them to. I was stunned. This will never happen in America. How many LPs you can record for the price of a drone?
2. The physical infrastructure of Montréal supports the scene–there are seemingly enough practice spaces, venues, and even lofts/basements to go around. With relatively lax noise laws, underground show spaces don’t usually get busted up by the cops. Sorry, Allston.
There had to be more I could learn. Everyone knows that lack of money and space are what cripple Boston’s scene. Before the talk I stopped by the table of the Québec English Language Arts Network (ELAN), the group hosting the talk, and flipped through their literature. Their mission to connect, support, and promote anglophone artists in a predominantly francophone region reminded me of what the Hassle is trying to do for Boston’s artists and musicians (minus all the French stuff).
After the panel I gravitated towards a girl about my age who was sitting in the front row the whole time, flitting about trying to make sure the event was a success. She turned out to be Amy, ELAN’s Program Coordinator, and I asked her if she could give me all of ELAN’s literature and tell me more about the organization. I dutifully followed her back to her table, figuring I was on to something. She lit up like a sapin de Noël when I mentioned how the good folks at the Hassle were trying to organize and support Boston’s underground. I don’t think this was because ELAN and the Hassle are comparable (they are in their mission statements, but only one of these groups is promoting shows where you have to ask a punk for the address), but instead because she also happened to be an independent musician herself. After chatting nonstop for an hour we went out to dinner with a few of her friends in the Mile End neighborhood. Along the way we discussed how well-dressed denizens of the isle were (we concluded that most outfits in Montréal were on point), how Boston’s finest tried and failed to catfish innocent showgoers, and Loose-Fit, a show promotion collective run by Amy and James amongst others. I had been here the night before for Deerhoof, completely unaware that the people chowing down on burgers around me were probably having a much more interesting time just a few blocks away.
After dinner we split up, Amy was going to drop off some things at home and then head over to the apartment of her good friend James (who was also entertaining his uncle that night). James treated me to some classy jazz vinyls and polite discourse on North American socioeconomic policies. I live in Cambridge and I never have conversations like that around here! Meanwhile he showed me the tapes that him, Amy, and eight other people produced on their upstart label MISERY LOVES COMPANY. More on MLC in a minute, but at this point I knew I had found something truly special. I went from wandering around Chinatown (a French Chinatown, at that) earlier in the day to hanging out with interesting people who were doing interesting things in an interesting place, completely on accident. I sublimely simmered in the surreality of it all.
Amy didn’t make it to James’ place but we did meet up with her at La Plante, a nearby loft that immediately reminded me of a certain big white haus in JP. Self-described as a “project-based, self-sustainable, positive-scene-catalyst, where ideas live, a home,” La Plante was hosting a furiously fast-paced show (8 back-to-back sets in 2 hours! Shades of Hassle Fests past and future). I only caught 1.5 sets, one featuring MLC member Kaity and the other a wicked experimental electronic drone artist, but what an astounding place! It was even cleaner than the Whitehaus, everything in Montréal really is on point! Afterwards Amy introduced me to Kaity and her friends Jack (resident of La Plante, American ex-pat) and Olivia (ex-pat from Portland, ME) and we talked about how Boston looks like garbage next to everything I had just witnessed. I swear this place sometimes is like a warped version of Footloose where all the Texans are replaced with Puritans. But at least the T is now running til 3AM on weekends so you can get home safe from all the bars that close at 1AM! To cap off this fine evening I went dancing with Amy, Kaity, and Olivia until 3AM in the St-Laurent club district, because I was determined to do as many things as possible that are simply not allowed in Boston, such as having fun.
After I got home I listened to the entire MLC catalog of 8 tapes–if you genuinely like the content we put in your ears on this site every day, do yourself a favor and listen to all of these. Just like the Hassle, MLC puts out a diversity of music that defies genre or explanation. If you like ambient, punk, harsh noise, free jazz… whatever it is, there is something for you here. In particular I heartily recommend the split tape of ALCRETE and Amy’s solo project, NENNEN. ALCRETE cooks up a post-apocalyptic ambient soundscape that could be the soundtrack to your wandering around in modern-day Detroit, or perhaps the soundtrack to a 15 minute supercut from Metropolis. Take the time to listen to NENNEN and you will follow her on a hazy, fuzzed-out, methodical (but not slow), undulating dream through the inner workings of her Canadienne mind. I can’t think of a good comparison to draw, but if your favorite progressive metal band let their rhythm section and lead singer have the day off and jammed with a shoegazing frontwoman instead, you might get something close to NENNEN. It pairs very well with ALCRETE, that’s for sure. I also want to give a shoutout to MANDS (featuring Amy, Kaity, and their friend Tim)–they have some kind of viscous, vicious instrumental progressive grindcore thing going on that churns and destroys and wears you out in a cacophony of noise (and they may be bringing it to Boston next year!) I can’t imagine their live set being anything other than a heavyweight bout between their chord structures and your ears (MANDS wins by KO). The last MLC artist I’ll recommend is HARSH REALITY, which sits somewhere at the intersection of punk, sludge, and shoegaze (and includes this Kaity person I keep mentioning). Sounds a bit like SOCCER MOM if a cat jumped all over the mixer and slowed it down and stripped out the treble.
I know I recommended mostly noisy rock out of Misery Loves Company, but that’s just because it’s what I like the best. Listen to all this shit. I’ll say it again: LISTEN TO ALL OF THIS HOT CANADIAN SHIT. James told me that MLC is a punk project, and not spiky-jacket punk, but punk in the traditional sense–DIY values and free artistic expression, doing something you believe in and making it happen for yourself. That’s why all the Bandcamp tags on MLC albums include “punk” even if it’s not punk music. MLC itself claims the project might not be forever, but with this high-quality music they’re putting out that would be a real shame. And to be clear, MLC is not representative of “the Montréal underground”, it’s much more a circle of friends who are making interesting music and releasing it together. They let me be a part of that circle for a day, and I had an absolute blast getting to know everyone and what they’re all about. You are all truly tremendous people, thank you so much for showing me around!
Canada gets a lot of shit from America (It’s America’s attic! It’s America’s hat! It’s America Jr.!) but we could learn an awful lot from them. They may be incredibly polite and friendly, but they’re also punk as fuck and they know how to build and, more importantly, maintain a vibrant arts scene. My vision of a future Boston looks a lot like the present Montréal (but all the street signs are still in English, that part is very important to me). If Boston’s so innovative these days, why don’t we put some of that brainpower to use building a scene that makes all those art students want to stick around after four years?