Culture | Where weird punk blooms

Braving strangers’ sweat and subliminal messaging at Montreal Knows No Wave

I can’t really say if what I’m hearing are the euphoric and muddled sounds of self-expression, or just noise, but by the way my heart is racing and my hips (and everybody else’s) are moving, I’ll go with the former.

Montreal’s music scene is like a beautiful garden, bedding the seeds of potentially the most exquisite smelling flowers, and the stinkiest. Nevertheless, it’s a big garden with just too many types of blooms to even begin to classify. Luckily for us, places like Casa del Popolo’s cantina-chic café/bar and artsy loft lab.synthèse host evenings where a handful of local bands can perform.

On January 29, Casa del Popolo embraced the presence of three up-and-coming bands – Dead Wife, Grand Trine, and The Other Thing – for the 19th volume of Montreal Knows No Wave (MKNW). Almost every month, the homey Casa puts on MKNW, a concert series where aspiring bands can perform for all their drunken friends and hipster strangers, busting their self-esteem-metre up a notch.

Before the show, I checked the handy-dandy online guru (Wikipedia) to see what this no wave business was about. Apparently, no wave was a contemporary art scene (involving music, film, and other artistic forms of expression) that began in New York City during the mid-1970s– think early Sonic Youth. The term is supposed to be a “satirical wordplay rejecting the commercial elements of the then-popular new wave genre.” Basically: a counter-movement of a counter-movement.

But what does this all have to do with a monthly gig in the Mile End in Montreal? I asked the founder/organizer of MKNW, Brian Seeger, this very question. No wave was particular to a period in time and space that cannot be replicated. According to Seeger, no wave music was “essentially nothing,” just weird punk music. MKNW attempts to bring back this openness to the “outsider,” giving Montreal’s abundance of experimental bands a little encouraging push. New wave, no wave, it’s all just rock ‘n’ roll, really.

While waiting for the show to begin, Seeger took upon himself the heavy burden of DJing, which was probably the best part of the night. He’s a smaller, slightly older fellow, and quite a character. In his nerd glasses and eighties sweater, he swayed his body to tunes like “Smooth Operator” and “Hollaback Girl.” Before the show even began, I knew the place was legit. When Seeger’s not lending a helping hand to the small bands, he too plays at MKNW, featured in bands like the Brian Seeger Buffet and Super Brian Seeger.

Casa is a choice venue for the series. Small and intimate, the place filled up very quickly. Luckily, Casa’s tiny size made the music only that much more amplified. The chill vibe and dimmed lights will make you not even care that you have the sweat of three different strangers on your body. But don’t be too naive; signs on the mirror in the bathroom warn you of pickpockets.

The Other Thing was the first band to take the stage. It took me a few minutes to realize, “No, this is not the rehearsal,” and, “No, the keyboardist isn’t shaking convulsively; he is actually playing.” Despite the mix-up, I found the band’s childlike way of banging their instruments – juxtaposed against their 40-year-old-man physiques, complete with greys and a belly – rather enjoyable.

Experimental punk can be kind of hard on your ears, but Dead Wife kicked ass in my book. Three chicks jamming and screaming is a no-brainer for me. Last to play, Grand Trine was probably the most cohesive of the three bands. The melodies were in sync, the drummer definitely knew how to hit that thing, and the singer vaguely resembled Emile Hirsch…except high. To be fair, it was difficult not to feel intoxicated by the echoing effects of his voice ringing in your head – making me think for a moment that no wave is the best thing since Pop Tarts. I still believe there were subliminal messages involved.

On Friday, February 13, members of Grand Trine performed again, this time in the 15-person Black Feelings Cosmic Overdrone. Lab.synthèse is another fantastic joint, a hole-in-the-wall loft near Beaubien and Parc. Besides being a music venue, Lab is also an art space for expos, theatre performances, and film screenings. As usual, the performances slipped me into a haze of green flashing lights, painted faces, and vibrating arm-hairs. The space reflected the music: no wall was left bare of art canvases and posters. Flower baskets hung from the short ceiling, and photographers lurked the ground like wolves on the prowl.

Besides the usual hipster-fest scene, everyone and their uncle was there. When I asked people how they found out about the event, many either responded by pointing a finger at a nearby friend or proudly stated that they were supporting a band member. As one observer put it: “It’s a nice experiment…. It’s a corner of the city where ideas can ferment.” Indeed, ideas were in fact fermenting in every direction.