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The Tammany Hall of the Montreal night?

Caitlin Manicom kicks off The Daily’s four part series on cultural tastemakers in the city with a look at the music scene

Incest is a dirty word in most contexts, but if we’re going to talk honestly about the way Montreal noisemaking works, it’s absolutely necessary. Questing for the key musical tastemakers of the city, I continuously came across the same individuals who have managed to get their talented paws into both the honey and the cream, from promotion to creation.

Daniel Seligman, for example, had a show at CKUT, managed Stars, runs Danagement – a publicity company for several local musicians – and founded Pop Montreal. Like most people who make it their job to influence Montreal’s musical tastes, he ascended his throne through personal connections. He was, in fact, recommended to me by a man with similarly protean talents, Andre Guerette.

Guerette holds his own as one of Montreal’s most important show organizers, as well as exercising his creativity with his band, AIDS Wolf. As one-third of the influential label and booking organization Blue Skies Turn Black, Guerette is singlehandedly responsible for the company’s scouting and promotion endeavours in the city. He also organizes the monthly Mandatory Moustache nights that showcase obscure musicians who otherwise might not have their work heard.

A Mandatory Moustache virgin, I attended one of his shows – a comeback after an extended hiatus – for the first time last month. Held at Club Lambi, the line-up included electro madmen GHETTONUNS and thrash pop oddballs Think About Life.

A pay-as-you-can mandate ensures that Mandatory Moustache nights are always a success, with doors wide open to anyone with an interest in hearing something new. Accessibility is of vital importance to Montreal tastemakers such as Guerette and Seligman because it draws musicians to the city.

“Montreal’s economic depression [up until the early nineties] fostered and nurtured a creative community,” states Kristiana Clemmens, a music coordinator at CKUT. Similarly, both Guerette and Olivier Lalande, Nightlife Magazine’s music editor, cite lax municipal laws and cheap housing as an attraction for artists of all kinds. Yet as neighbourhoods with thriving artistic communities such as Mile End and Griffintown undergo gentrification, one has to wonder: where will all the musicians go? For the time being at least, they’re continuing to make their presence heard loud and clear.

When asked which Montreal group he considers the most influential, Guerette modestly states that “suggesting AIDS Wolf would be weird,” and lists several less experimental acts. But he’s justified in suggesting that his band deserves recognition. Although they have received scathing reviews from the indie know-it-alls at Pitchfork, AIDS Wolf helped to introduce the now-prevalent noise and no-wave genres to Montreal.

“There was a time when we couldn’t even sell out Sala Rossa. Four or five years ago, we were the one weird band,” claims Guerette. Now, it seems that Montreal has new experimental and noise bands crawling out of the grungy woodwork every week; Thundrah, Les Georges Leningrads, CPC Gangbangs, Think About Life, and Cousins of Reggae are just a handful of the more widely-played acts.

Succumbing to peer pressure

Liam Thurston, one half of the Cousins of Reggae duo, shifts seamlessly from Cousins’ aggressive noise – seemingly devoid of any cohesive beat – to the world of painstakingly beat-oriented Peer Pressure dance music.

In fact, no discussion of Montreal tastemakers would be complete without mentioning club culture. Musical niches are consistently prone to fluctuation: most scenes strengthen, weaken, and then all but disappear. Although he wrinkles his nose in distaste, Nightlife’s Lalande cites club culture as the one “scene” that has remained constant for the past three decades.

Several DJs, such as Ghislain Poirier, Megasoid, and Sixtoo, who have played at every art-related event I’ve attended this year, deserve mention. That said, it is the Peer Pressure crew, founded by Thurston and DL Jones, who seem to collectively run Montreal’s glitzy, drug-laced electro underground.

According to Lalande, “The concept of a scene is totally artificial. When you talk about a scene, you are talking about an accident,” he argues. But for all their hipster-appeal and off-the-chart cool ratings – they have been omnipresent in The Mirror’s “Top 10s” for the last two years – Peer Pressure have created a very real scene of their own. Their widespread popularity and tight-knit community has nothing accidental about it.

Eloquent and thoughtful, Thurston took the time to offer his reflections on Peer Pressure: “Peer Pressure as a pervasive vibe, name, and collective identity started as an after-party circuit. We would rent friends’ lofts for a night, rent the sound equipment necessary to feed the bruised ears of our following, and set up the bar that would keep them hydrated during the antics we promoted.”

As Peer Pressure has evolved into something more than mere “antics,” it’s become a central part of Montreal music and its hedonistic underground. The parties thrown by DL Jones, Shay, and Melanie showcase the talents of local DJs affiliated with the Peer Pressure crew, namely Hatchmatik, A-Rock and Mark Meny, as well as inviting Montreal acts that have made it big outside of the city, like We Are Wolves and Chromeo.

“Whether it’s electro, Baltimore beats, or techno, the Peer Pressure boys play very high energy, hyper music. Hands are always in the air and the DJs don’t ever bring it down,” says Jonah Leslie, owner of Old Gold, the trendy boutique that outfits much of Peer Pressure and their entourage.

Although frequently derided as a scene characterized by excessive drug use and American Apparel lamé, Peer Pressure DJs do play an important, creative role. “The intense interest and attention of musicians and promoters spurred the DJs’ need to innovate and create their own tracks,” states Thurston. But he does offer that their “often hard, loud, and wild variations on dance floor hits…promote the late night habits of the hedonistic land of Montre-Hell.”

Don’t forget about indie pop

Grandiose tones, falsetto voices, and the orchestral, epic melodies belonging to The Besnard Lakes bear little resemblance to the frenzy whipped up by dance-scene DJs. Still, one can’t deny the relevance of indie rock in a city known for acts like Arcade Fire, Bell Orchestre, and Patrick Watson.

They’re cited by nearly every music promoter I interviewed as the most important noisemakers of 2008 for their most recent album, The Besnard Lakes Are the Dark Horse, which echoes and complicates Montreal’s staple indie darlings. Recorded with members of several local bands – Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Stars, et cetera – this album is a true amalgamation of Montreal sound. Again, it’s an indication of the incestuous nature of the musical community. Yet up to today, there seems to be no threat of tainted offspring; The Besnard Lakes have conserved their signature melodic sound despite the various influences at play.

In Daniel Seligman’s eyes, Montreal continues to be such a fertile music centre primarily because artists, no matter how successful, “reinvest in their communities and take pride in their city. Many of the bands that have achieved some degree of success stayed in Montreal.”

Drawn & Quarterly – Mile End’s resident graphic novel store – hosted a free show by the local Handsome Furs last weekend. As an eager crowd filled the crevices between book shelves and display tables, the small room reverberated with creative energy. A tiny girl, swaying precariously on her mother’s shoulders, clapped along with drum-machine beats and messy bass.

Squished between bodies, I suddenly understood exactly what Seligman meant.

No particular tastemaker or musician makes the loudest noise; while hierarchies are not totally obliterated, Montreal’s huge variety of music niches proves that choosing sounds is a job for performers, promoters, and audiences alike.

Keep reading The Daily for a look into the people behind the art, literature, and dance scene in Montreal.