You wouldn’t know it to look at it now, but for a fleeting moment this was ground zero for Montreal’s weird pop scene, the spot where you’d find all your friends and all your favourite bands, the two groups an indistinguishable tangle of asymmetrical haircuts and samplers.
If you follow Canadian indie music even peripherally, you’ve probably heard of Lab Synthèse, the now-defunct artistic hub that nurtured some of the biggest indie artists to come out of Montreal in the past few years: Grimes, Majical Cloudz, Mac DeMarco, and BRAIDS, to name just a few. It’s also the birthplace of Arbutus Records, now one of Canada’s most celebrated indie labels.
It’s easy to romanticize Lab as a bohemian utopia for creative outcasts and McGill dropouts, a version of Warhol’s Factory in Montreal’s Mile End. But that’s also made it a battleground for competition, jealousy, media hype and bylaw enforcement, a spot where one artist’s success ripples outwards to her friends and peers in both positive and negative ways.
Sebastian Cowan was a familiar face at Lab Synthése. Tall and lanky, wearing a white tank top like it's his uniform, you’d usually find him at working the sound system, tweaking microphones and amps, even repairing that finicky toilet that just won’t flush. Moving from Edmonton to London, England, Cowan famously turned down a job offer from Sony and devised a plan for a warehouse venue in Montreal. After a year of email chains and conference calls, Lab opened in the fall of 2008. By the final day of October 2009, it had closed down.
What was once only privy to those in the know quickly fell prey to a ravenous music press, which codified and glorified Lab as the epicenter Montreal’s red hot weird pop movement – “the new Brooklyn,” as dubbed by The Telegraph. It even spread to Montreal’s official tourism website, which now lauds the Mile End as “Canada’s Cultural Capital.”
To be fair, romanticism wafted through the venue even before it shuttered. Cowan recalls a conversation with Rollie Pemberton (aka rapper Cadence Weapon), where the two friends compared Lab to the iconic photos from Sonic Youth biographies, the snapshots of Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon hanging out with Glenn Branca in 1980s New York. “It was all the cool people all in one picture and you didn’t even know they were all friends…we were like, ‘This is exactly like that.’”
Before she was a big-font festival act and a darling of the fashion world, Claire Boucher (a.k.a. Grimes) a neuroscience student who came to Montreal from Vancouver for university, but quickly fell into the music scene, spending as many nights crashing on the couch of the Lab as studying for midterms. That became a common path for artists from all over Canada with big dreams and little money, seeking the refuge of cheap rent and cheaper shows.
Jane Penny of TOPS says she came to Montreal from Edmonton after hearing about all the parties. Andy White from Tonstartssbandht hung off the rafters during gatherings he hosted as Andy Summers. The entire goal of Pop Winds, Devon Welsh’s band before Majical Cloudz, was to play there.
“It was really intense and beautiful,” recalls Emily Kai Bock, the director behind Boucher’s motocross frat boy music video for “Oblivion” in an interview with Dazed Digital. “Living in a public space with a PA next to your bedroom was arduous, but the glow of inspiration that filled the room during the shows, and the rich conversations that lasted late in the night would sometimes leave me with a deep sadness that such an oasis of collaboration couldn’t last forever.”
And so the story goes. It was only a matter of time until the DIY venue shuttered (apparently undercover police were involved), but not before Cowan founded Arbutus, the record label that would launch Boucher’s career.
Grimes’ rise to international stardom has been remarkable, a two-year blast that raised her from obscurity to Best New Music-stamped Vogue model and MTV Video Music Awards red carpet cohost. It’s also set a precedent for other creative types hoping to transcend the Montreal loft scene.
Aaron Levin, a founder of Weird Canada, remembers receiving early demos from locals Sean Nicholas Savage, Makeout Videotape (DeMarco’s previous band) and the Silly Kissers (an earlier incarnation of TOPS) while working as the music director at the local college radio station in his hometown of Edmonton. In 2009, just three months before Grimes’ debut LP Geidi Primes was released, Levin put on a show for her and Pop Winds at Wunderbar in Edmonton. Only 30 people showed up. No big deal. She’d continue her Canadian tour and eventually make her way back to Montreal to her circle of friends and weird pop oasis.
The following year, Grimes released her follow-up, Halfaxa. Eventually the media latched on, and soon enough she signed to British indie juggernaut 4AD, who partnered with Arbutus to release her third album, Visions. It all blew up from there.
“At this point, [Boucher’s] secured a place for herself in a realm that’s above and beyond anything that’s happening here,” Penny aptly puts it. “I feel like she’s kind of grown out of Montreal.”
When Grimes exploded, a competitive air filled the Arbutus community. When Boucher repped the Mile End in interviews, she wasn’t just rallying support for her old ‘hood, but unknowingly sparking rivalry between her friends. Challenged by her success, people started doubting if their projects were worthwhile.
“When one of your friends does really well, you’re smiling on the outside,” says Raphaelle Standell-Preston, front woman for BRAIDS and Blue Hawaii, “but on the inside you’re thinking ‘Am I not doing something right?’”
Competition isn’t something we tend to think about when we imagine our favourite bands playing, recording and living together, presumably in perfect harmony. We imagine competition existing only in the pop world, reserved for industry juggernauts like Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears in the aughts. But it’s an inevitable part of human nature, especially in a scene as small as the Mile End’s.
Devon Welsh of Majical Cloudz says he “sort of checked out” when things were the most heated, but he could see how Boucher’s popularity was affecting his friends. “It threw a lot of people into fierce competition to get that attention,” he says.
According to Cowan, however, Montreal’s competition is healthier than other indie rock meccas. “In New York or London, the bands are always like ‘Who’s your agent? Who’s your label? How many units has your record sold?,’ while in Montreal it’s like ‘Man, did you hear Mac [DeMarco’s] new album? He has guitar solos on every song. That’s amazing. We should probably start doing guitar solos too.’”
If Montreal artists are feeling the pressure, they’re careful not to let it destroy the scene. On Blue Hawaii’s latest album, Untogether, you can hear Standell-Preston work through those issues before arriving at a tenderly cooed resolution: “The other day I had a beautiful thought/ What if I didn’t really care at all?”
“I think that we’ve seen how ugly it got between people and now everybody’s on an equal plain again,” says. “I think we’re a lot more supportive of each other again.”
Montreal’s comparative lack of music industry means competition might never grow as intense as other cities, but it also means musicians might be more compelled to leave, avoiding the big fish/little pond paradigm altogether. But the spotlight Grimes summoned on Mile End was far-reaching. While not on the same scale as what happened in Seattle during the golden age of grunge, where music execs jetted out to the coastal city’s dingy rock bars in search for the “Next Nirvana,” other bands felt the aftershocks of Grimes’ success.
“We put out our album [Tender Opposites] like two days after she put out Visions and we definitely experienced a certain amount of surge from that,” says Penny. “I think everyone did.”
What happened next was like a chain reaction: other Mile End bands started getting noticed and spending more and more time away from Montreal.
These days, Boucher is living in rural B.C. and recording her next album within a strict media blackout. Last year, Mac DeMarco signed to Captured Tracks in Brooklyn and embarked on what seems like a never-ending tour cycle. Welsh still has an apartment in Montreal, but spends an equal amount of time in New York, where his label Matador is based. Cowan moved to London, England, for both love and business (he works out of XL’s office).
So what happens when a scene outgrows itself?
“At a certain point, it ceases to exist in some way,” says Welsh. “What was holding it together was the fact that everyone was doing it for themselves. Everyone was learning how to be a band: how to get an audience, making CD-Rs, booking tours. Thankfully, a lot of people who were involved are getting popular, but that means nobody is really here full-time anymore.”
Cowan dreams of an environment where bands will stay in the city and continue to nurture the scene, carrying the torch from vets like Constellation Records. “Montreal isn’t some jumping point where people come, generate success, move forward and never come back,” he says. “That’s not what I want to foster.”
He shouldn’t have to worry too much. Montreal continues to be an appealing place for the young and creative: you can rent a whole house for half the price as a dingy one-bedroom in Toronto, it’s less isolating than Vancouver, and it boasts the most universities per capita, meaning there are plenty of students looking to “find themselves” between art history lectures. It’s teeming with energy, ambition, and thanks to the Mile End’s forefathers – Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Arcade Fire – its legacy predates Lab Synthése.
And just like how Arcade Fire beckoned a whole crew of shabbily dressed youngsters armed with ukuleles, accordions and vocal harmonies, Boucher brought kids with samplers and micro-Korgs.
Cross the train tracks past the derelict textile factories and you’ll find Arbutus’ old digs. Turn the corner and you’ll find a remarkably similar door, the entrance to their new headquarters, La Brique.
It’s Pop Montreal 2013 and Arbutus is hosting a party there. It’s supposed to be a “secret” show, but the space is specked with journalists. Unlike the Lab days, the bands aren’t just playing for themselves and their friends; they’re playing for an audience that extends beyond the loft.
Electro-garage rocker Calvin Love opens, followed by the whimsical synth melodies of TOPS. By the time they take the floor, the space is packed and the beer has run out. Welsh wanders in, and shortly after Cadence Weapon makes an appearance. Sitting on the couch is Grimes’ close friend, Airick Woodhead from Doldrums. Cowan mans the sound.
And hanging on a wall beside the performance area, framed, Grimes’ album art for Visions looks down at the space.