Culture  Asking around

Valentin Stip on Montreal's underground electronic scene

One of the best things about being young today – despite the onset of climate change, the faltering global economy, and the depletion of the world’s oceans – is being present for a golden age in electronic music. Computers have granted the means of music production to the masses, a process that has leveled the playing field between established artists and amateurs, fostered a highly fertile creative environment, and eroded the corporate elitism of the music industry. Ever since the advent of Napster, the whole corpus of recorded music has been inexorably moving out of the CD store and onto an online commons of file sharing.

One of the results of this cultural shift has been the rise of a new generation of very young and talented producers, who are enabled by easy access to music and production software. Many of them, like McGill U3 Philosophy student Valentin Stip, are still in university as they gain prominence through self-publishing on the internet or releasing tracks on indie labels.

21-year-old Stip, who is finishing up his degree, publishes his music through the New York imprint Clown & Sunset. Only two years old, Clown & Sunset was founded by Stip’s friend Nicolas Jaar. Jaar’s 2011 debut LP, Space is Only Noise, was an evolutionary landmark in the world of electronic music, selected by Resident Advisor (a prominent dance music website) as their Album of the Year. The album was hardly danceable, as it ticks along at about 80 beats per minute. But Jaar succeeded in pushing the boundaries of the genre: the album’s groove is undeniable. Jaar’s music combines a huge array of elements, drawing broadly from soul, jazz, and blues; as well as rarer ingredients such as Mulatu Astatke’s Ethiopian jazz and the Situationist speeches of Guy Debord. The resulting sound is far more identifiable by its mood – reflective, smooth, and conspicuously dark without being maudlin – than it is by any definable genre.

Clown & Sunset’s artists, including Stip, share some of Jaar’s stylistic characteristics, as well as his devotion to experimentation beyond the limits of the genre. Their shared vision is at least partially a result of adolescent proximity, as most of them attended the Lycée Français de New York, a posh school that also graduated Julian Casablancas of The Strokes and the lead singer of Nada Surf, along with several former French presidents.

But while Nicolas Jaar’s jazz-inspired sound maintains a consistent groove, Stip is more ambient, less funky, with a noticeably classical element. Growing up, Stip studied piano, eventually deciding that he wanted to be a concert pianist at 17. After being told by his instructors that his playing wasn’t good enough to apply to conservatory classical performance programs, Stip abandoned music and moved to Montreal to attend McGill. After spending a few morose months here without his piano, he decided to re-introduce music to his life by learning how to use Ableton and other music-production software. Although it began as his life’s side project, Stip is now planning on launching himself into a music career after university, with the goal of supporting himself solely by playing shows and releasing music online.

As an electronic artist, Stip explained, living in Montreal has a particular set of advantages and limitations. Musically, the city’s reputation is inextricable from the great indie successes of Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Arcade Fire, indicative of a tendency toward traditional instruments and small-venue concerts, rather than the type of club scene found in London, Berlin, or New York. But the city’s laid-back music culture and relative lack of pretension create an encouraging atmosphere for a developing artist, and the mental proximity between artists and crowds can make it seem as if he is playing “to a group of good friends,” according to Stip, who is more used to the self-conscious clamour for attention among crowds in Manhattan.

But the dearth of good venues for electronic music, driven partly by a lack of interest in this indie-loving city, and partly by the ongoing crackdown against illegal parties by the police, keeps the local house scene well underground. Afterhours haunt Stereo, which opens at the crack of three in the morning, is a nice illustration of how liquor laws exclude all but the most devoted electronic fans. “Either you have to go to sleep at 7 p.m., and wake up at 1 a.m., or you take drugs,” Stip said. “The way the city is set up is not to the advantage of places like this.”

So Stip and others rely on the nomadic after-hours scene to both play and listen to music. They are forced to change locations frequently, because the police like to make an appearance wherever people are setting up paid-entrance parties and serving alcohol without the consent of authority. Yesterday, the venues included the Torn Curtain or the Silver Door; today the scene has moved elsewhere, as police have shut those down. One effect of this policy has been to push the electronic scene outside the city’s core, north of Mile End to Jean-Talon and beyond, where the SPVM is less accustomed to shutting down illegal fun.

It’s unfortunate that in a time when music is available so freely on the internet – creating both unparalleled access for listeners, while eliminating the album as a source of revenue for artists – that it is so difficult to see emergent producers in the informal spaces where electronic music thrives. Artists and collectives often don’t have the money to rent more formal, legal spaces, and the cost of venue licenses is prohibitive. So the scene remains inaccessible to thousands of potential fans, while artists lose out on exposure and much-needed financial support.

But the scene has long been adapting to its conflicts with the law: nomadism and the temporary repurposing of the city’s many abandoned industrial structures have kept it ahead of the police. Stip is a founding member of the Booma Collective, a group that specializes in putting on shows that feature both live acts and DJ sets in informal locations. Although Booma has a Facebook page, many other groups are more protective of their anonymity, giving the city’s electronic scene a sort of tight-knit, underground flavour. This, Stip believes, may actually be an advantage, as it ensures that artists regularly attend each other’s shows, and keeps the atmosphere friendly and intimate (as long as the police don’t arrive).

Despite the high level of precaution, artists love having people attend their shows, Stip said, and knowing the “right people” will go a long way towards finding yourself some underground fun for the weekend. So if you want to attend a night of great house music, and continue drinking and dancing until six in the morning, ask around.