As the bass-heavy sunsets of Piknic Electronik begin to fade from our memories, and a fall chill resurrects hoodies long stored under our beds, it might seem like September could not possibly hold as much excitement as those delicious summer months. Fortunately, vibrant and youthful Montreal has something to amuse us at all times of the year.
The question, “What is POP Montreal?” is a loaded one that has no right answer. POP Montreal is not simply about showcasing underground bands, nor is it just about providing a media platform and gallery space for visual and performance artists. The POP Montreal festival, with its wide and multidisciplinary artistic scope, ultimately serves to remind us of the importance of supporting local artists within an accessible, independent, and minimally corporate atmosphere.
According to the event organizers, the POP Montreal International Music Festival is an annual not-for-profit curated cultural event that looks to champion independence in the arts. Beginning Wednesday, POP Montreal presented an assortment of art forms and events including symposium discussions, live concerts, artisan and visual art exhibitions, fashion shows, film screenings, and a few all-night loft parties. Last year, the five-day festival showcased more than 600 artists and attracted audiences of over 50 000 people. POP Montreal provides critics, musicians, curators, music producers, and fans alike with a rich and dynamic introduction to the next generation of independent musical talent and art forms.
On Wednesday I attended the festival’s launch party at POP Montreal headquarters on St. Urbain where, appropriately, L’École Des Beaux-Arts once stood. Although the launch was designed as an exclusive RSVP event solely for artists and press-pass holders, to my surprise POP volunteers welcomed inquisitive passers-by. This illustrates the first cardinal characteristic of POP Montreal: accessibility. Ticket prices range from free to $40, and most events take place at a series of venues situated over a relatively compact area, reachable by foot, metro, or bike, making it easy to sample a variety of artists while getting to explore the Mile End.
The launch party gave a taste of the bold cross-section to be expected at POP Montreal over the next five days. There was a variety of art installations in the dark rooms upstairs at the POP headquarters. Projections looped shaky images of indecipherable objects across the room, accompanied by droning bass tones. These projections were so spooky that one even succeeded in making a five-year-old boy cry. Downstairs, partygoers had pretty much struck gold. POP Montreal offered free food, music, and drink for its opening night, along with a gift bag containing glow-in-the-dark nail polish, a bike bell, chapstick, and condoms, among other things (in other words: just the essentials). Surprise musical guest Fabricville, who could be mistaken for a group of escaped balding carnival clowns, began to play an acoustic cover of M.I.A.’s “Jimmy” that quickly launched the eclectic crowd into fits of sporadic swaying.
Next up, after all this swaying, it’s onto the Théâtre Rialto for Fashion POP, an annual design competition that attracted the city’s brightest up-and-coming fashion design talent. Following this, Le Divan Orange was host to Jay Malinowski & The Deadcoasts of Bedouin Soundclash fame. The rest of the week was a fantastical blur of visual and musical experiences.
Highlights of POP included Colin Stetson’s performance on Thursday at Théâtre Rialto. Stetson is a bass saxophone musician who dabbles with experimental, jazz, indie rock, and dub-step styles. Eyes bulging and cheeks puffed like a blowfish, he challenged my previous conceptions of what sounds could be humanly produced with a saxophone. Up close you can almost feel the pain and physical stress he undergoes to miraculously produce such heaving and complex sounds. He didn’t have any looping devices or pre-recorded background music for aid; everything the audience heard was produced live and birthed from his hunky diaphragm. As a result of looping his breath for four minutes at a time, he seemed to not be able to see straight or coherently address the audience following each song. His endearing “Sorry guys, I can’t see you […] too much blood in my head” got a chuckle or two from the audience.
Aware of its home in a bilingual city, POP Montreal attempts to appeal to both English and French speaking audiences. To facilitate this, bilingual volunteers were provided at every venue. Still, there was definitely a lack of Quebec talent at this year’s festival. Visiting several venues across the Mile End, I stumbled upon Dresden Dresses, The Trick, Colin Stetson, Honey Wild, and Tim Hecker, all of which, except for Dresden Dresses, hail from outside Quebec, and all of which performed in English or had English song titles. Although I applaud Dresden Dresses and Colin Stetson for their efforts in addressing the crowd in French, I would have liked to see more local Quebec artists at this year’s festival. If POP Montreal claims to be a festival that promotes local talent, what is more local than native Quebec artists?
Now, if you’ll excuse the corny metaphor, POP Montreal is like a soda pop beverage: it looks cool, tastes sweet, and makes you hyper as hell, yet all the while you are not exactly sure what’s inside. Perhaps it is the festival’s mélange of obscure venues and unusual content that allows it to be just as exciting every year. I can confidently say that POP Montreal is enshrined among the most beloved of Montreal cultural celebrations. Whatever the secret ingredient, POP Montreal is a gathering that brings forth and amplifies the city’s underground artistic pulse like no other.