The Montreal Sound? Rock et Roulez Montreal's newly famous music scene is abuzz with rock 'n' roll energy in two languages: French and English. There are hot, undiscovered bands aplenty. But is there really a "Montreal sound?"
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The Montreal Sound? Rock et Roulez

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The Montreal Sound? Rock et Roulez

The Montreal Sound? Rock et Roulez

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In the music industry, once something is labeled hot, hip, or in, it's not long before whatever is 'in,' lands in the 'what's out' column. This past year, pop music reviewers hailed Montreal's ascending status as a city that was churning out innovative bands. So, it's understandable that some of the locals cringed when their hometown was branded the next big scene in pop music. NPR's Claudine Ebeid went to Montreal to find out how musicians there are handling the situation.

CLAUDINE EBEID reporting: Howard Bilerman should be a very happy man these days. He's produced and recorded a long list of Canadian bands that are being heard south of the border. Along them, The Dears, Wolf Parade, and 2005's indie darlings, Arcade Fire, who are up for a Grammy.

(Soundbite of music by Arcade Fire)

Over a cup of soup in a small café, Bilerman scoffs at the fuss that's been made over his hometown.

Mr. HOWARD BILERMAN (Music Producer, Montreal, Quebec, Canada): You know how's there's this notion that a tree falling in the forest only makes sound if someone hears it? Okay, well, a few media outlets have decided in the year 2004 and the year 2005 that they've heard some trees falling in Montreal, and they've deduced somehow from this that, as of 2004, trees have been falling in Montreal.

EBEID: In fact, he says, musical trees littered the Montreal landscape long before the media started paying attention. For years, clubs in the city were driven by DJ beats. But sometime in the early 1990s, that started to change, and turntables were replaced by live bands. Back then, bands had to pay for the privilege of playing in most clubs. So as an alternative, musicians created their own spaces in which to perform. One of them was called The Hotel2Tango, opened by members of the band, Godspeed You Black Emperor.

(Soundbite of music)

The Hotel2Tango eventually became a recording studio and while there are still some underground lofts around the city, by and large, most acts have moved into bars and clubs. Over the last five years, a crop of them has opened. The Le Divan Orange is one.

(Soundbite of man speaking French)

As you enter what looks like a gutted townhouse, someone seated at a weathered wooden table asks you to pay whatever you feel you can afford.

(Soundbite of female patron paying to enter club)

The money goes to the musicians. One of those performing tonight is Katie Moore. She's from Montreal and has been playing folk music in the city for the last eight years.

(Soundbite of Katie Moore performing; murmur of club crowd)

Moore says the club boom and the change in payment policy gave the music scene a boost and maybe even helped create a bond between artists. She says there's a lot of commingling between bands and uses Warren Spicer as an example. Spicer is a singer and guitarist, and tonight he is backing up Moore and playing with his band, Plants and Animals.

(Soundbite of cheering, clapping crowd)

Moore jokingly says there's a name for guys like him.

Ms. KATIE MOORE (Folk Singer, Montreal, Quebec, Canada): Show whores. Like Warren, who plays with me, is a show whore because he's in another band. He's in two other bands and...he's in three other bands, actually.

EBEID: This camaraderie between bands is an element the media has played up. But Moore says it's ignored something else, something that could be the very thing that's fostered two strong music communities.

Ms. MOORE: I think there's a real separation between the French music and English music here, but I think just Anglophone, maybe just Anglophone music is such a small community here because I guess we're a minority, so maybe that's just helped it thrive a little bit and become very incestuous.

EBEID: But French musicians have their own community. Gourmet Delice runs the independent label, Blow the Fuse Records, home to French punk bands. Delice says the media has been shallow in its depiction of the Montreal music scene. He points to two articles that put Montreal on the map in the U.S. this past year.

Mr. GOURMET DELICE (Blow the Fuse Records; bassist for French Punk Band, Le Nombre): The spin in The New York Times, they just came to the English bands, but they completely forgot the, the French part, and it's really half and half here, you know, there's a lot of French bands doing really well, and so I think they were really narrow-minded in that, in that aspect.

EBEID: But, he acknowledges that there's good reason that the English bands are getting all the press.

Mr. DELICE: These bands really were more successful anyway, you know, like The Stills and The Dears and stuff. It's just that those bands go everywhere right away because they sing in English, I mean, they're in England, they're all over the States, all over Europe, as opposed to a French band which, you know, like to go to the States, we have to work really hard to get there.

(Soundbite of music from French punk band, Le Nombre)

EBEID: One the ways he's working to get there is through a government grant. In addition to running the label, he also plays bass in French punk band, Le Nombre.

(Soundbite of music from French punk band, Le Nombre)

Last year, the Canadian government invested nearly $14 million in the rock music industry. Forty percent of that funding goes to French music. The rest is allotted for music produced in other languages, including English. Arcade Fire, The New Pornographers, Spice, Metric, Broken Social Scene are all bands that did very well commercially both at home and abroad this past year. They also all received some form of grant or loan from the Canadian government.

(Soundbite of music)

Government funding of rock music may be anathema to U.S. listeners, but there's something else that sets the Canadian music scene apart. Musicians just seem to have a different attitude here. You get the sense that they're not as concerned with competition.

Mr. TIM FLETCHER (Singer and Guitarist for Canadian Band, The Stills): What's cool in Montreal is there's this, and Canada, is this new measuring of what success is, you know. We're sort of doing it on our own.

EBEID: Tim Fletcher sings and plays guitar for the band, The Stills. Right now, he says it's great to be in a Canadian band.

Mr. FLETCHER: Whenever we're somewhere else, like at a festival and we're together, we all hang out, you know, and it's a great time and we're the Canadians, you know, and everyone's like, oh, the Canadians are so polite. That's the way we go about things.

(Soundbite of music from the Stills)

EBEID: Lumping together all of the Canadians, or even artists from Montreal, irks some of the people here. Producer Howard Bilerman is one of those who cautions against buying into the idea that Montreal somehow has its own sound.

Mr. BILERMAN: All these articles say that Montreal has a pop sound. I mean, it's ridiculous. There are thousands of bands in this city. That assessment is based on five or ten bands, all of which live in the same three blocks.

EBEID: Montreal may not have a patented pop sound, but it's prevalent enough these days that Bilerman could use a change.

Mr. BILERMAN: I'm equally happy, in fact, more happy these days to have someone come in and scrape a piece of metal with a screwdriver into a distortion pedal into an amp than a four-chord pop song.

EBEID: Bilerman stands on a snow-covered street on a day when it's -8 degrees Celsius, his hands in his pockets. He looks away and in a puff of white condensation, hopes things will be back to normal soon.

Mr. BILERMAN: Montreal is a really easy city to be anonymous in and all of this media attention is sort of ruining that a bit. There's always been so little industry here that's it's really just easy to do what you want to do and not get distracted by the trappings of industry. And I really hope that it returns that way...soon.

EBEID: Bilerman may just get his wish, says Gourmet Delice.

Mr. DELICE: I just read something that it's now Portland, Oregon, that's the new place for, you know, I mean, whatever.

EBEID: Portland, be warned. Claudine Ebeid, NPR News.

HANSEN: To hear more French and English music from Montreal, visit our Web site at

(Soundbite of Montreal rock band, singing in French)

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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