Pop Montreal
Montreal, October 1–3
by Stephen Slaybaugh and Josie Rubio

SS: Making the six-hour trek north for Pop Montreal this past weekend, I had few ideas of what to expect as neither myself nor my sidekick for the weekend, Agit writer Josie Rubio, had ever attended the nine-year-old festival, and I had never been to its host city. Hell, all I’d ever seen of Canada was its share of Niagra Falls. So I brushed up on my Franglais (i.e. watched some Pink Panther movies), perused the festival schedule, and headed for the border with little preconceived notions. As it turned out, both the festival and Montreal itself exceeded the few hopeful expectations I did have.

JR: When picking up passes to Pop Montreal, instead of The Agit Reader, they were somehow listed under Rubio Media. It’s a company that doesn’t exist, but I briefly felt like a mogul, kind of like Citizen Kane, but without a chance at the wealth and megalomania. (So I guess not that much at all.)

Pop Montreal kicked off on Wednesday, but it was Thursday night that looked to be the most impressive. Reunited hardcore legends Negative Approach were on the schedule as were recent Agit interviewees Women and Agit favs Bear in Heaven. However, not being able to get into town till Friday meant we missed out. Still, another former cover star, Zola Jesus, was opening for the vastly overrated and woefully boring the XX.

(The Agit Reader editor will tell you, whether you ask or not, that the XX is overrated, each and every time that band is mentioned.)

Backed by three synth-ists and a drummer, Zola ran through a short set consisting mostly of songs from her new EP, the just-released Valusia. In the grand setting of the Place des Arts (that’s “place of the arts” for those of you who don’t know French—heh), her crimson voice soared. When meshed with the gothic tones of her backing, it was something truly dramatic. The pop element she’s favored recently over noisy decoupage worked even better in the splendor of the big room, with the highlight, “Night,” as spellbinding for its thunderous beats as Zola’s bewitching voice.

Zola Jesus’ performance delighted my inner goth girl, which can probably be more delighted than an outward goth girl, who has an image to maintain. The performance of “Night” from Trillium swelled to such force that a smaller venue couldn’t have contained it. Danilova slunk ever lower to the stage, eventually jumping off down to the floor level for the last song.

Next it was up to the city’s main drag, the Boulevard Saint-Laurant, for some bistro fare and to pop in to Barfly to catch Little Girls. Something was off with the schedule, however, and we caught a couple snoozy instrumentals from whom I’ve since come to realize must’ve been Woodsman. Not exactly the stuff to keep one up after a day in the car.

We were going to go for a nightcap at Koko, the bar attached to Opus, a “boutique hotel.” But someone was getting arrested. Word about the Opus: If you want to stay in a clubby environment, pass out at a club. It’s cheaper and probably less annoying. Now that I’m looking at this, I can’t believe those names weren’t a red flag to me when I was looking at hotels. Opus? Koko? What was I thinking? An Irish pub had to do instead, where a few musicians launched into “Jack and Diane,” proving my theory that John Mellencamp is ubiquitous.

After some sightseeing during the day, we headed out Saturday night with little preference on who to catch. Instead, we opted to just head north on Saint-Laurent, with our gameplan being to go into any club we happened to pass.

The rules: We had to stay for at least one song from each band, no matter what. The starting point was Petit Campus to see Savoir Adore, which was on a bill of book and animal themes (Hoof & the Heel, Wolf & Cub, Paper Lions, Young Adult Fiction and Library Voices).

Their peppy set of post—Yeasayer pop wasn’t as interesting as I’d remembered their record being, but was definitely worth sticking out. The Brooklyn band had their moments (when they were at their most frenetic), but I wouldn’t go out of my way to see them again (not that it would be necessary).

Not knowing anything about them beforehand, the foursome onstage looked so wholesome and upbeat and—Canadian? But no, they’re from Brooklyn, so sometimes you have to travel six hours away to discover something in your own backyard.

They’re centered around the duo of Paul Hammer, who plays guitar live, and Diedre Muro, who stood behind a keyboard; they both share vocal duties. The set also included a bassist and drummer/comedian, who kept up a flow of banter from behind his set, wandering to the front of the stage once before he was ordered back by Muro. This also explains one of my favorite parts of the show, when the effervescent duo of Muro and Hammer waved their hands like wings in one part of “Loveliest Creature.” But the bassist looked ever so doubtful about this bit of choreography even as he complied—and now I know why. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure either about that Glee-like part, but it’s hard to hate on this energetic pop duo. Their ebullience is contagious; after starting the show with only a few audience members near the front of the stage, eventually they had a good number of people dancing, as Muro encouraged people to get up from their seats.

We then popped into Jukebox and caught a couple songs from More Or Les, a Montreal hip-hopper whose laidback style and rhymes about food and how he doesn’t like public bathrooms were reminiscent of De La Soul.

He was in the middle of his set—specifically “Brunch” from The Truth About Rap. This isn’t your average hip-hop, the tongue-in-cheek song is about his favorite meal of the day. It was good to set the mood for poutine that was to come later in the evening—and it includes a shout-out to Montreal bagels.

But determined to catch as much of Pop Montreal in one night as possible, we pressed on. We ended up back at Barfly just in time to catch Angels in America, which from our limited view seemed to involve some shirtless guy pantomiming to the increasingly grating mix of white noise and vocal dirges.

It was a lot of screaming with some guitar, but that took a backseat to the man with his arms in the air and an apple in his mouth. We sat at the bar next to the TV playing Canadian football. Unfazed regulars covered their ears, as the Angels’ emittances rose to a deafening pitch. As the screaming intensified, I suspected they were putting the apple-guy on a skewer. “No, put this apple in your mouth and butter your body. Nothing bad is going to happen.” One guy at the bar apologized “on behalf of the whole fucking country.” He also explained that Canadian football fields have bigger end zones. I personally thought the players had looked smaller before that, but I guess it’s the field.

Thankfully AIA’s set was on the short side. After being told by the aformentioned local that we must witness Toronto’s Corpusse at least once in our lives, we decided to stick around. It wasn’t for long, though. Every city has at least one past-his-prime punk who still thinks that “crazy” hair and make-up can overcome the flatulance emitting from their amps. (Of course that is never the case.) Think of this as a poor man’s (a very, very poor man’s) Killing Joke and maybe you get a sense of the misery inflicted. Obviously, it was time to go.

A long walk up to Casa de Popolo turned out to be worth it. In the backroom, Grand Trine, another group of locals, tore it up with channeled abandon. They veered between short-and-sweet garage thrashings and pysch-ish extrapolations. Bassist and vocalist Tobias Rochman came off like a cross between Jonathan Richman and Iggy Pop while breaking strings and generally jerking about onstage. Closing with the Sonics’ “Styrchnine,” Grand Trine gave the impression that they could be just as loose or as tight as however the mood struck them. Definitely my favorite of the weekend.

They were somewhat apologetic about their set, which seemed to be wrought with technical problems, but the several songs I caught were worth seeing.

Lower on my list was Py Py, who followed. While beginning as a mildly entertaining take on stompy blues backwash, the band’s charm quickly eroded, specifically when their guitarist took to the mic for some fuckwit rapping. That he also couldn’t go more than a couple minutes without slaying on the flanger didn’t win points. Anyway, trying the quintessential Montreal late-night dish of poutine (french fries with gravy and cheese curds) definitely held more appeal, so we quickly exited.

Sunday’s small pittance of acts wasn’t enough to keep us from seeing more of Montreal, which I had quickly grown to like. And I really liked the manageability and lack of crass commercialism of Pop Montreal. Both the city and the festival shared an unimposing amount of charms, and they won’t be seeing the last of me.